Friday, August 20, 2004

The CBI tries to get in on the act

Just two days after the Conservative Party produced its rather fatuous and ill-informed proposals for businesses suing the British government for “gold-plating” EU legislation (see my colleague’s blogs), the Confederation of British Industry has decided to get in on the act.

In the past the CBI was a bulwark of pro-EU sentiments, even trying to conduct rather flawed surveys that allegedly proved that British business wanted to enter the euro as soon as possible. These days it is a little more muted on the subject, partly because it has realized that even the large businesse that tend to be the mainstay of the CBI can be adversely affected by all that legislation.

So, as Director-General Digby Jones has announced, they have proposed some ideas of how the MPs can deal with the flow of EU “regulations”. MPs are asleep on the job, thundered Mr Jones. They should have an early warning system and influence EU legislation at an early stage. There should be a better scrutiny system. After all, more than half of our legislation comes out of Brussels.

Perhaps, Mr Jones should start by finding out a little more about how that legislation is done and what the powers of scrutiny might be. In the first place, considerably more than half our legislation comes from Brussels, especially if you take into account the regulations that proceed from framework directives. These regulations are directly applicable and do not need to go through Parliament at all.

Then there is the problem that the EU legislative process obeys its own multiannual plans, whereby strategies result in proposals, which result in framework directives that take years to reach their end, only to spawn many regulations. This is a radically different way of legislating from the British one, which starts with a legislative proposal, that becomes a Bill to be debated in Parliament (except when it is a Statutory Instrument, an ever more favoured method of legislating in this country and the way in which most of what comes in from EU directives is put into law). Nor is it affected in any significant fashion by such fripperies as European Parliamentary elections or new Commissions.

At what stage does Mr Jones suggest the early warning system to be put into place? Experience tells one that very few industries or businessmen start getting worried when the first mention of some EU proposal is mooted. They know it is all a long way ahead and, anyway, they are always optimistically convinced that something will turn up and the big bad wolf will change course.

Then there is the whole question of scrutiny. Scrutiny is not the same as legislation and accountability. You can scrutinize all you like, Britain is one of 25 countries and if a certain piece of legislation is decided on by whatever method – qualified majority voting or consensus as likely as not – we have no choice but to put that into British law.

Mr Jones finds it annoying that interested groups cannot lobby in Westminster in the same way as they can in Brussels. They can, of course, present their case and it is usually listened to, particularly in the House of Lords, whose European Committee produces well-argued, carefully considered reports on many aspects of EU legislation, often well in advance of that legislation reaching these shores. But no, Westminster is not, at least in theory, a pork-barrel-trading organization, unlike the Commission and the European Parliament.

As my colleague has already argued, gold-plating is no longer the problem. It is the volume of legislation that is coming from Brussels and the fact that the final documents that hit this country are regulations. If Mr Jones thinks that Britain can somehow influence anything as long as our relationship with the European Union remains what it is, he is in for a rude shock. Though, quite possibly, if he still has not experienced that shock, he never will.

On the other hand, it is possible that like so many organizations, the CBI and its leaders have no particular problem with the EU’s managerial style of governance and have no desire to return to any kind of democratic accountability of political debate. They merely want a bigger slice of the action.

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