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More hidden integration

Posted by Richard Sunday, November 07, 2004

Christopher Booker's notebook today presented a classic illustration of how newspapers can so often superimpose totally inappropriate headlines on the pieces they publish, obscuring rather than describing the contents.

Actually, it is worse than that, as The Sunday Telegraph, with its first title to Booker's column: "Some bright spark has had a very dim idea", not only fails to describe the contents but somehow manages to trivialise an important subject of general interest.

The actual issue, on which Booker writes, is that, in seven weeks' time, new electrical rules for private houses do are being rushed through by John Prescott, to "harmonise" Britain with the rest of Europe. As a result, we face the prospect of a startling shortage of self-employed electricians, considerable extra costs, more bureaucracy and the possibility of heavy fines for householders who fall foul of the rules.

This is well worth a read (link here), but in many ways the more significant issue is that neither through the various documents produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, or even the amendments to the Building Regulations, which bring these news rules into force, is there any clue whatsoever to the fact that these are harmonising regulations of EU origin.

In the past, one could usually tell whether this was the case from the preambles to the regulations, which would offer as their "authority" the European Communities Act, but there is no reference in this case to the Act.

What in fact is going on is a poorly understood and little-advertised procedure whereby the EU is gradually harmonising technical laws in the Community, first introduced in 1983 and then amended in 1998 by an extraordinarily opaque directive (98/34/EC) "laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical standards and regulations".

What this Directive did was introduce what has been called the "new approach" to technical harmonisation.

The process was to continue to work through the EU standardisation bodies such as CEN and CENELEC, which would continue to churn out "European standards" but, instead of these then being turned into EU directives and regulations, this new directive required the various national standardisation bodies (such as the British Standards Institute) to confer "the status of a national standard to these standards" and "to withdraw any conflicting national standards."

The effect of this is also to impose a "standstill" on all national work falling within the scope of EU competences, so that the national standards bodies no longer produce their own standards but work with others and the EU bodies to produce more European Standards.

However, the standards retain a national identity – although in name only – and are then adopted by member states, often by means of domestic legislation, achieving the commission objective of further integration without it in any way being obvious.

That is precisely what has happened with the new electrical rules, which are going to have a devastating effect both on electricians and their customers. A "bright spark" with "a very dim idea" hardly begins to describe what is going on.