Sunday, January 27, 2013

Booker: in Europe and "ruled" by Geneva

Booker 026-gen.jpg

It is an unfortunate headline for the Booker column this week, as it could never be said that we are "ruled" from Geneva in the same way that we are ruled from Brussels.

However insidious "global governance" might be, it is largely undertaken on an intergovernmental level which means that, unlike the supranational EU, we can chose to accept or reject agreements "done at Geneva" and other global venues – for the moment, at any rate. 

What makes the column particularly relevant, of course, is the coincidence of David Cameron's speech (the theme would have been broached this week, even if Cameron had not spoken). 

Delivered at eight o'clock on Wednesday morning, that speech, says Booker, put one in mind of the White Queen's boast that she could "believe six impossible things before breakfast".

Cameron wanted us to believe that he could persuade the EU to change its nature and the purposes for which it has been built up over 60 years. He wanted us to believe that it could breach its core rule that powers of government once surrendered to Brussels are never handed back; and that he can somehow persuade Brussels, and the other 26 members, to allow us to retain full membership, while opting out of much else except the right to continue trading freely in the single market. 

He would also have us believe that he can win the next election on the promise of such negotiations, and that they could be completed by 2017, to be part of a new treaty the EU is planning, for quite different purposes – even though the requirements for such a treaty, including a lengthy intergovernmental conference (and convention), could not possibly be completed by that date. 

Finally, he wished us to believe that the results could then be put to the British people in a referendum, without telling us what the question might be if his negotiations fail. 

However, the moment that above all showed Mr Cameron as living in cloud cuckoo land was when he dismissed the idea of Britain gaining the kind of trading relationship with the EU that Norway has, as a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA); because, he said, although Norway has full access to the single market, "it has no say at all in setting its rules".

Like many other people, Mr Cameron is clearly unaware that recent years have seen a mighty and accelerating revolution in the way that rules are made in our globalised world. 

A huge proportion of the regulations governing the single market now originate from global bodies even higher than the EU; and in the tortuous process of shaping those rules, Norway is not only a very active player but also enjoys more influence, as an independent country, than we do. 

Britain is increasingly represented on these bodies only as part of the EU, on the basis of a "common position" agreed by majority voting, where we are just one of 27 member states, with eight percent of the votes. 

Rather than seeing Brussels as the source of many of our laws, we should be looking at another European city, Geneva, where vast buildings house the largest number of UN employees on the planet (34 organisations, comprising the United Nations Office at Geneva, or UNOG) and such powerful bodies as the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN's Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the International Standards Organisation, and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with its sponsoring bodies, the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, to name but a few. 

As I have been reporting, for more than five years, it is bodies such as these that set in train the process that, down the line, results in a great many of the regulations that emerge from Brussels. The famous working-time directives, for instance, derive in large part from the ILO, set up in 1919 by the Versailles Treaty, which actually included the promise of a 48-hour week. 

The vast thicket of EU technical standards dictating every detail of how motor vehicles are made now originate from UNECE, a body in which Norway is an active participant, even though it has no motor industry – while Britain, which last year produced a record 1.5 million vehicles, is only represented by the EU. 

When it comes to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), whose subsidiaries set global standards on food safety, plant health and animal welfare, Norway, with its worldwide fishing interests, actually chairs and plays host to the powerful committee on fish and fisheries products. 

It played a leading role in setting the rules controlling Antarctic krill fishing, providing food for the world's fish farms, another big Norwegian interest – while our own Scottish fish farmers must merely comply with the resulting regulations passed down to us by Brussels. 

Last week, Booker referred to an EFTA report that shows that more than 90 percent of the regulations of the single market cover policy areas that are ultimately the province of global bodies, from the immense array of technical standards to the rules governing accountancy and the compiling of official statistics. 

Not only does Norway, acting in its own right, enjoy more influence on these international policy bodies than Britain; it also, as a member of EFTA and the European Economic Area, even reserves the right to opt out of single-market rules that it considers damaging to its national interest. 

When Royal Mail was forced by Brussels to put its bulk mail of items below 50g out to tender (thus costing it the most lucrative part of its business), Norway, realising that this would render its own postal service unviable, refused to comply. 

Similarly, Norway is refusing to comply with new single-market regulations on the safety of oil rigs. Meanwhile, our own oil and gas industry says that it is "extremely concerned" that the EU rules will "dismantle the UK's world-class safety regime, which is built on decades of experience". Although the UK Government agrees, it is likely to be outvoted in Brussels and our industry will have to obey. 

When Mr Cameron insists that he wants Britain to negotiate a wholly new relationship with the EU, "with the single market at its heart", he clearly hasn't begun to understand that this is precisely the position enjoyed by Norway. 

Whether we would wish to follow Norway's example in all respects is a matter for debate. But the irony is, as we have observed before, that the only way for Mr Cameron to get the results he outlined last week would be to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This alone would compel the EU to negotiate with us. But first he would have to announce that Britain wishes to leave the EU, the one course he has already ruled out. 

Without that, the rest is just pie in the sky. It will not bring him a single one of those "six impossible things" he wanted us to believe before breakfast on Wednesday morning.