Gove’s anti-EU argument more fury than fact

by Jack Schickler | 22.02.2016

Michael Gove has been widely praised for writing a well argued essay explaining why Britain should quit the EU. The justice minister’s case is actually full of misleading examples and downright contradictions.

“I believe that … the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change”

EU laws have to be agreed by ministers in the Council – in which the UK government has influence and has been on the winning side 87% of the time. They also usually have to be approved by the directly elected representatives in the European parliament, 73 of whom are British. The justice secretary is just plain wrong when he says later no British politician can “alter in any way” EU legislation.

Gove must also be aware that the government has a veto on EU harmonised taxes, so it can block any tax law it does not like. He also presumably knows that only 2.15% of the £600 billion-odd in taxes British people pay goes to the EU – and a big chunk of that comes back.

“Hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk none of which were requested by the UK Parliament”

The British government regularly asks Brussels to act in particular areas – for example to create a single market in energy, capital markets, and digital – as well as to sign a free trade deal with the US. All are areas the EU is currently working on.

The government “cannot remove or reduce VAT”

VAT is harmonised within the single market for a very good reason –  as products can be freely transported across borders, you do not want people simply shopping around for the country with the lowest rate. That said, Britain is still free to cut the main VAT rate to as low as 15%, or to offer a reduced rate on a range of extra products and services. It is a bit rich for Gove, who was part of the government that jacked up VAT to 20%, to suggest the EU won’t let us cut it.

The government “cannot support a steel plant through troubled times”

Gove is referring to the EU’s state aid rules, which mean a general prohibition on governments subsidising particular companies or sectors. Such rules are intended to prevent protectionist-minded governments from distorting or harming competition. For example, the Commission is now using them to investigate sweetheart tax arrangements for multinationals and to stop Estonia subsidising its national flag-carrier.

The British government “support[s] strong State aid rules to ensure aid is well targeted ”, citing the benefits such strong rules can have for innovation, new market entrants and consumers. Leon Brittan, a British Conservative, bears a lot of the credit for the EU’s tough anti-subsidy rules. It’s odd that Gove is wearing a protectionist cloak.

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    The government “cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country”

    As InFacts has previously shown, the UK can still deport those it deems a serious threat

    Of course, each situation needs to be taken on its own merits, and the government does not have unlimited freedom of action. It has to operate within the law. But isn’t that something Gove should welcome? In the very same essay where he rails against the government’s lack of untrammelled powers, the justice secretary sings the praises of checks and balances, noting with approval that “in Britain … we ensured no-one could be arbitrarily detained at the behest of the government”.

    EU rules dictate … the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).

    Gove is presumably thinking of the Habitats Directive, which says countries should take “appropriate steps” to avoid disturbance of protected species in special conservation areas. But nowhere does it say houses can’t be built within 5 kilometres of such areas.

    Under UK regulations implementing the directive, Natural England, the public body responsible for wildlife protection, can put the brakes on any building development plans which it feels might have a significant effect on such conservation areas. Natural England’s advice, reflected in local planning policy but not law, means those hoping to build within 5 kilometres of certain special protection areas must jump through various additional hoops. But even then there is no outright ban. Not only has Gove exaggerated the nature of the UK’s rules; the detail comes from Britain not Brussels.

    EU rules dictate … the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres)

    EU rules on olive oil marketing standards do impose a 5-litre limit for the containers olive oil is sold in. This is because, if olive oil is left around for too long, it risks going rancid. The rule is overkill. But what Gove doesn’t mention is that the EU allows countries to waive the 5-litre rule for those who might want or need to get their olive oil in greater containers, such as restaurants and hospitals. The UK decided not to. If Gove really thinks this is a big issue, he should be pushing our government, of which he is still a member, to change the rule.

    Michael Gove’s office did not respond to InFacts’ request for comment.

    This piece was updated on 23 February to add the material about cats chasing birds, and on 25 February to add material on olive oil. 

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    3 Responses to “Gove’s anti-EU argument more fury than fact”

    • Sky News with Adam Bolton last night was full of errors, including some by a former Attorney General.
      Some of it was so off beam that I wondered if
      Did they mistake Denmark and Greenland?
      Did they not know what the Maastrict Treaty is about?
      Did they not know when ‘Article 50’ to which much reference was made, was adopted and in which major EU Treaty? (Lisbon)
      The debate was therefore a farce, spending time on whether the Danish precedent could be used for a Boris Johnson type renegotiation….

      You have an excellent article about the errors in Gove’s essay, great if you would take up Sky which is watched by a lot of people and Adam Bolton has considerable credibility. It was a bad day in the office….

    • “They also usually have to be approved by the directly elected representatives in the European parliament, 73 of whom are British.”

      The EU parliament has no powers to propose or repeal legislation. It is an expensive rubber stamp for ever balmier directives dreamed up by the unelected EU executives.

    • Yes, they do have powers to propose and repeal legislation, Roger.

      They don’t have the power of initiative, and that’s something entirely different. In fact, the EU parliament regulatory proposal procedures are more robust than the UK parliament. Which is why the EU parliament have a better rate of return on their proposed legislature than the UK parliament. In the rare case the Commission doesn’t implement a proposal there are processes that pick this up, look at the decision, and then return it to the commission to implement (and historically speaking they then implement it).

      Compare that to the Private Members Bill where most things passed are put on a back burner until the parliament session is over. Or the government sit down with the proposer and convince them to let it go on the basis of them creating a report at a future date.

      When you look at the stats, and include how the EU parliament are leveraging the CWP process more and more, it’s clear that the EU parliament is actually quite powerful.

      They also get to debate technical regulation changes on a level that the UK parliament don’t. With lots of UK domestic technical regulation being tied into secondary legislation in which the UK parliament is not allowed to debate the contents.

      You should also be aware that the unelected Civil service dream up laws, and policy is the thing that the elected representatives produce. It’s incredibly rare for a minister to propose and actual law without it being proposed by the unelected executive.

      In the EU, the policy comes from the elected heads of state.

      It’s then the minister’s responsibility to get it through parliament. In the UK these ministers are selected. Sometimes from the unelected House of Lords. Whereas in the EU the people that fulfil this responsibility are elected by the elected parliament from the elected parliament.

      So, no, it’s very far from an expensive rubber stamp process.