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Reversing the drivers of regulation?

Posted by Richard Thursday, August 19, 2004

Now available from the Conservative Party website is the full report, detailing how the party will deal with the "deluge of over-regulation" emanating from Brussels, on which yesterday's press conference was based (see previous Blog).

Entitled "Reversing the Drivers of Regulation: the European Union", it runs to 64 pages, with print so large that there is no need to produce a separate copy for the visually impaired.

Produced by John Tate and Greg Clark of the Conservative Research Department Policy Unit, it is a truly wonderful demonstration of how the party has totally failed to get to grips with the European Union and what is represents. If UKIP had got its act together, it could have a field day.

The one good thing about the document, however, is that it is clearly laid out, with the core details enumerated, so one does not have to spend too much time demolishing the proposals.

On offer are eight proposals, three set down for "immediate action" and the other five listed as "Actions in Europe". The "immediate" actions are: minimum implementation of EU directives; allowing existing gold-plating to be deleted; and supporting only EU legislation with price tags. I will deal with these first.

On the issue of "minimum implementation of directives", the authors of the report clearly do not have any idea of what is happening on the EU legislative scene. As our readers will know, the traditional directives were devices for setting out general objectives in respect of specific EU policy areas, which then allowed member states to transpose them into law, allowing considerable flexibility as to how they were framed, as long as the general objectives were met.

However, that understanding comes out of "Janet and John go to Brussels". Directives have long since been transformed into very different creatures. These days, they are often so detailed that they are virtually indistinguishable from the (theoretically) more detailed regulations, and leave very little room for discretion or flexibility on the part of the member states. Generally, they only need to be copied out into the respective legislative codes to become law.

But there has been a more profound change. As with the British government, which relies more and more for its legislative programme on general "Enabling Acts" which simply create general powers for ministers to frame regulation, so does the EU more and more rely on "Framework Directives" which empower the commission to produce detailed European regulations.

These Regulations have what is known as "direct effect". They come into force the moment they are enacted, or "done in Brussels" as the wording over the signature blocks so kindly remind us. They must be adopted word for word, unchanged, and do not require transposition into member state law books.

In other words, straight directives are "old hat" and the problem of "gold plating" is simply less relevant than it was when the Conservatives were last in power. The Tories, like old generals, are preparing to fight the last war.

To that extent, the second of the proposals allowing existing "gold plating" to be deleted is also less relevant. Many of the directives where it was a problem have been – or will be in due course – replaced by EU regulations.

The third proposal, though, is in a different league – supporting only EU legislation with "price tags". This is nothing more or less than sophistry. There are 28 Conservative (and Unionist) MEPs in a European Parliament of 732 members. Britain is one of 25 members of the Council of Ministers in which most legislation is passed by qualified majority voting. Here, the UK is in a permanent minority, representing 13 percent of the vote. Who cares what the Conservatives will or will not support? The commission is not going to roll over and stop producing legislation just because the Tories want "price tags", and neither will the other member states. This proposal is a waste of space.

That brings us to the other five proposals – the "Actions in Europe". The authors of the report claim they will "force" member states to prove they can comply with proposed EU legislation, before signing up to it. Oh dear. And precisely how will this be done? Can it be done? Er.. no - not without a treaty change. Another waste of space.

Next, the Conservatives will "ensure pre-legislative review", thus ensuring that legislation is fully justified. One can only deal with this in increasingly acerbic terms: haven't these drongos heard of the EU treaties? Do they not know that the commission has absolute right of initiative? There is no requirement for the commission to carry out such a review and it will continue churning out the legislation, as it deems fit, with or without pre-legislative reviews. There is nothing the Conservatives can do to stop it.

Next, the Conservatives say they will "introduce a 'red card' for use by national parliaments", scrapping EU legislation that 50 percent of more of "EU national parliaments" cite as disproportionate or contrary to subsidiarity. Er… not without a treaty change they won't, and that is not likely to happen. In any case, all the Tories are committed to is to "press the case". Big deal. And what if the colleagues say "no"?

Next, they say they will introduce "sunset reviews" of legislation, so that EU laws have automatic expiry dates. Again, not without a treaty change, but read exactly what the Conservatives are proposing: "A Conservative government would argue strongly for the European Commission to insert sunset clauses into new legislation". Big, big deal. Forget it.

And finally… "A Conservative government would call for the president to appoint a commissioner with explicit responsibility for deregulation". Er… please Mr Fox, would you look after these chickens for me? Excuse me while I laugh.

What is missing from the whole of this dire document, of course, is any explicit, detailed proposal as to how the Conservatives aim to cut back any of the 97,000 pages of regulation so far produced. There is only one way. That is to set out specific demands, to threaten to leave if they are not met and to mean it. And that, the Conservatives will not do, and that is why nothing in this document is of any value whatsoever.

These people know nothing, have learnt nothing, and are going nowhere.