Brexiteers are fond of denouncing EU “red tape” from which, they say, the UK should liberate itself. Business minister Priti Patel joined in the complaints on Thursday. It is true that a large chunk of EU law concerns technical standards for the safety of industrial products, for health and safety at the work place, and food safety. But which red tape? What liberation?
Chris Grayling MP, a leading Brexiteer from the government, has quite reasonably written that we do not want to go back to a situation when every country would have its own safety regulations for lawnmowers. That is of course a metaphor for many other standards, which can be counted in thousands. So we should keep sensible standards, but otherwise free ourselves from the absurd, unnecessary and over-costly standards.
This is where the difficulties start. Presumably these undesirable standards are not about wearing hard hats on construction sites, or protection from chain saws cutting off your fingers, or from dangerous chemicals like those which caused the Seveso disaster, or food contaminated by mad cow disease, or untested pharmaceutical products like thalidomide that caused phocomelia? Or thousands of others.
Brexiteers suggest that the EU is producing loads of absurd standards. Specimen no. 1 for readers of the Daily Express is the banana, which usually is curved. The Daily Express has said that the EU wanted to straighten them out. OK for a good laugh in the pub with Mr Farage? Oh yes. But dear readers and voters, the time for cheap jokes is over, since we are deciding the future of our country.
So how does the system actually work? Three non-governmental business organisations write most of our industrial standards (European Committee for Standardisation, European Committee for Electromechanical Standardisation, European Telecommunications Standards Institute). Much of their work is done on the initiative of manufacturers’ associations, like indeed the European Garden Machinery Industry Federation. They want sensible standards at minimum cost, which will allow for free trade without “technical barriers to trade”.
Under this system, the European Commission consults with member states and then requests that these standardisation bodies define specific standards that should meet “essential requirements” of public policy. Crucially, however, Brexiteers ignore the fundamental fact that these standards are voluntary. A manufacturer which thinks it can meet the “essential requirements” in some other way is free to do so – although it has to be able to demonstrate to a certification body that it does meet the requirements.
What if some of these standards are obsolete or unduly costly? Of course, it is quite a job to identify what to scrap or revise. But the European Commission has a procedure for this, relying heavily on member states to help. And actually the British government is one of the most helpful – which other member states appreciate.
All this leaves Brexiteers who want to do it our own way with some tricky questions:
- Do we want stricter or less strict safety standards? Or can make our own standards? As pointed out, we are free to give that a try now.
- But if our own standards are incompatible with European standards, are we indulging in old-fashioned protection of our producers at home, while cutting them out of export trade? That is a sure recipe for an uncompetitive economy, which of course we do not want.
We do not need to get bogged down in these questions. The first vice-president of the Commission is Mr Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands, a country which ranks higher than the UK for global competitiveness. He has a mandate to make the procedure for weeding out unnecessary red tape work. And anyone who knows Mr Timmermans knows that he relishes any chance to slash unnecessary red tape when he sees it. The red tape argument for leaving the EU does not hold water.
Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow, Centre for European Policy Studies
This piece was corrected on April 30 to make clear that thalidomide caused phocomelia not polio.
Edited by Michael Prest