What “liberation” from precisely which “red tape”?

by Michael Emerson | 29.04.2016

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.

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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

4 Responses to “What “liberation” from precisely which “red tape”?”

  • APPEAL TO ALL UK WORKERS in MANUFACTURING and FARMING SECTOR (regardless of political orientation): As it can be read from the article from THE SUN newspaper (not a pro-EU one!) about the interview from prof Minford (date 15 March 2016) and on the UK Reuters Article at the launch of the pro-brexit manifesto on 28 April 2016 (publicly endorsed by Nigel Farage as from his speech on 29 april 2016). Before voting please read carefully what the official pro brexit economic future would be for the Brirish workers in manufacturing and farming: 1) Prof Minford words (SUN article titled “Brexit will boost our economy and cut the cost of BMWs and even brie”): “Over time, if we left the EU, it seems likely that we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech. But this shouldn’t scare us.
    Britain is good at putting on a suit and selling to other nations.
    Around half of young adults now go to university, ending up in professions such as finance or law, while the making of things such as car parts or carpentry has hugely shrunk — but there will always be jobs for people without sophisticated skills.” (my note: I wonder in such scenario what will be left to do for the persons who did not attend higher Education?)

    2) Prof Minford words (UK Reuters article titled: ” Pro-Brexit economists hail benefit of scrapping EU tariffs and rules” ): “FARMERS, as well as CAR MANUFACTURERS, would SUFFER from lower exports to the EU, Minford said. But the economy as a whole would benefit from being able to SCRAP EU REGULATION on WORKER’S RIGHTS and CLIMATE CHANGE, and FOCUS on SERVICES where it had a competitive advantage”. Therefore the pro-Brexit UKIP endorsed economic model (so far the only official one from the Leave camp) views the loss of farming and manufacturing jobs as an acceptable thing as far as to protect and push only for the service sector (for the skilled, high Education British people only). Therefore FORGET about any possibility of Government TATA STEEL PROTECTION for workers. Moreover, on the same article, prof Minford states: “By leaving the EU and unilaterally scrapping tariffs on imports of food and manufactured goods, Britain would be able to reduce average prices by 8 percent”. (My note: OK prices WOULD reduce 8% – if lucky but this attitude will mean opening to DUMPING from whoever country wants. WTO rules are restrictive insomuch that a country, for example UK, will be obliged to adopt the same tariff (or no tariff) to every country in the world, without possibility to adopt one tariff vs a country and another tariff vs a different country. NO! Whereas the other country does not need or simply can not reciprocate as bound also by the WTO rules).

  • IS EU ECONOMY REALLY CRUMBLING? Answer to be read here: official statistics about 2015 economics of the EU (source completely unrelated to any EU referendum debate) the EU economy as a whole grew more than the UK one. The intra EU country as well as the extra EU exports grew significantly (source: “International trade in goods – Statistics Explained – Europa.eu” dated 7 April 2016). All details are in the report as from the source posted (not intended for the EU referendum but as a summary of EU trade). Therefore the EU is far from crumbling economically. The problem is to ask why UK exports are falling to other EU countries. Most likely (my suspicion) is that this is in relation to fall in output (productivity) of UK goods. In brief: other EU countries cannot import what is not there and does not exist because it has not been produced (UK problem, not EU one)