Thursday, July 20, 2006

Annoyed at EU legislation? It's our own fault

I've long been convinced that a sizable amount of the anger generated by EU legislation is due more to the British government's own implementation than the legislation itself. In the UK, we always seem to implement directives and other Brussels-generated laws far more stringently than our continental cousins, following things to the letter rather than taking a more flexible approach.

Now, however, we would appear to moving towards some measure of proof, thanks to initial findings from an under-reported Treasury consultation by Lord Davidson, which has found that

"Government teams responsible for applying European Union laws are often under-engaged, poorly resourced and prone to making mistakes because they are in a hurry"
More information can be found at the Cabinet Office's site, including a bunch of .pdf summary findings so far.

In his introduction, Lord Davidson notes that
"creating obligations additional to the EU minimum requirements - where it cannot be demonstrated that the benefits exceed the costs - can hamper UK productivity, innovation and competitiveness"
And therein lies part of the problem in terms of public perception of the EU. If a law is brought in "because the EU told us to", the assumption is generally that the law is also brought in "in the manner the EU told us to" - and therefore if and when said law starts causing problems, it is the EU that gets the blame.

Though Davidson's findings have not yet been finalised, it would appear that evidence is building to support my suspicions that in a large number of cases it is actually the incompetence of the UK government's implementation of those laws rather than necessarily the laws themselves which are causing the problems.

After all, other EU member states never seem to have quite the same problems that the UK does when it comes to EU legislation, and always seem to manage to find loopholes - why can't we? (New Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's piss-poor attempts to ensure British farmers receive their EU subsidies in a timely manner while she was at DEFRA being a prime example of the UK being utterly rubbish at working with EU systems when every other member state copes fine.)

Of course, a lot of the problem is thanks to there still - more than three decades after having joined what is now the European Union - no real system in place in Westminster to scrutinise EU legislation. The closest we've got is the Commons' European Scrutiny Select Committee and Lords' European Union Select Committee - neither of which have the manpower or resources to keep tabs on everything.

As such, it is very easy, as Davidson's report notes, for departments to implement legislation badly or excessively - it is, after all, easier to simply rubber-stamp than to analyse, and quite simple to attach additional demands for governmental purposes and then blame it on Brussels:
"Over-implementation of European legislation may arise in a number of ways, including: extending the scope of European legislation; bringing EU-derived obligations into force earlier than required; failing to streamline the overlap between existing legislation in force in the UK and new EU-sources legislation; or uncertainty created by lack of clarity about the objectives or status of regulations and guidance."
Of course, what we really want to know, when Davidson publishes his final report at the end of the year, is to what extent this is due to incompetence, to what extent deliberate deception on the part of the government. Because blaming Brussels is a very easy cop out, and has been an extremely handy excuse for government after government ever since we joined.

Were our government forced finally to make a real effort when it comes to EU legislation, it's just possible that we might end up with fewer scare stories about EU bureaucrats banning things left, right and centre or imposing burdensome new rules on our businesses. At a push, people may even start to be able to see benefits from EU legislation which has, seemingly thanks to our own government's inability to do its job properly, to date been seen as largely negative.

8 Comments:

Blogger ken said...

“Incompetence of the UK government's implementation of those laws rather than necessarily the laws themselves” Please excuse the selective quote!

As this covers several different administrations is it plausible to suggest that they are/were equally incompetent, perhaps it is something to do with the British persona, in general law abiding people obey the law.

I was discussing this with a wine supplier the other day, he told me that a certain type of irrigation systems was illegal for use in wine growing, yet one of his French wine producers had just such a system installed, at a cost of several thousand Euros, when questioned, the wine grower pointed out that having the system installed was not illegal only using it. In Britain we would have probably made the instillation of the system illegal, working on the obvious assumption that anyone who installed such a system was going to use it.

If by implementing the regulations in full we are getting a true picture and feeling the full effects of those regulations, and the other states by finding loopholes are having an easer ride, then they are in for a shock when their loopholes are closed. On the other hand if we do suffer from incompetent gold plating by our own governments, they are adding to the costs of EU membership and adding to the EUsceptic feeling in the country.

I understand that much of the new EU based legislation is being written more carefully and fully, thus leaving much less room for either gold plating or the finding of loopholes.

7/20/2006 02:57:00 pm  
Blogger eulogist said...

Well spotted, and I am glad the Davidson report has taken this up. However, I am not entirely with you on some of your conclusions:

First of all, I don't think the issue is that

"In the UK, we always seem to implement directives and other Brussels-generated laws far more stringently than our continental cousins, following things to the letter rather than taking a more flexible approach."

The real problem is rather that the British government (and numerous others) tend to add things that are required by neither the letter, nor the spirit of the EU Directive. This simply because it is a convenient way of pushing impopular measures through Parliament ("It's not our idea, the EU bogeyman requires us to do this"), or because it's an inherent trait of governments, civil services and parliaments that they want to make policy.

Second, the problem is not that the British parliament is understaffed or that there are too few MPs in the EU scrutiny committees because:
A) these committees only overview the making of EU law at the EU level, not its implementation into national law which would normally be the work of the "ordinary" (non-EU) standing committees;
B) both houses of the British Parliament are much better staffed and have considerably more members than the parliaments of many other Member States;

The real problem, at least in Britain, is not numbers, but an abysmal lack of attention for the EU part of national lawmaking among all political actors (MPs, press and public).

7/20/2006 03:34:00 pm  
Anonymous mark said...

in reply to ken ...

It's often not finding loopholes or avoiding regulations

A simple example:

A few years ago the EU agreed to standardise the green emergency exit signs with the directive aimed at getting all new restaurants, bars, etc. to display the standard signs.

In the UK they went a major step further and made every business change all of their signs to meet the new standard within quite a short period - around 2 years if I remember.

Meanwhile, in Ireland they made the new signs obligatory for all *new* businesses (and refurbishments). They obviously were very conscious of the large number of small family businesses including most pubs that could not absorb the cost so easily.

Within a few years, as they get refurbished, a large proportion of Irish pubs - and certainly all the big places in Dublin that might be large enough to need proper emergency signage - will comply with the directive - but this will have happened at effectively zero cost. Meanwhile in Britain it cost millions.

I know which decision I find more sensible.

Do you really think that is cheating or finding loopholes? I think it was just a sensible interpretation of the directive that was appropriate to the needs of small business.

7/20/2006 11:33:00 pm  
Blogger ken said...

In reply to Mark,
I do not actually argue with the content of NM`s original post, I agree in the example you give that the Irish response was more sensible. The point I was trying to get across was, rather than incompetence it is possible the British way to implement laws/regulations fully. But there is also the gold plating which is another matter, quite why British Governments take an EU directive and transpose it into something which is much more draconian with added costs than it needs to be I do not know, it is almost as if they are actually trying to make membership of the EU more onerous than it needs to be. Perhaps Eulogist has a good point “an abysmal lack of attention for the EU part of national lawmaking among all political actors (MPs, press and public).”

7/21/2006 04:09:00 pm  
Anonymous mark said...

"it is almost as if they are actually trying to make membership of the EU more onerous than it needs to be"

yes, I sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that is the case!

7/21/2006 04:47:00 pm  
Blogger chris said...

Even if regulation where not lead plated to the extent that it is, or even better if the government sort to find ways around it like everybody else, the question still remains; why do we need all of these laws passed in in the first place?

The representatives that we directly elect to create the legislation needed for this country have generally seen no pressing need for them. So can a group remote from the UK see the needs of the UK's electorate clearer than the people who's jobs depend on doing what is in the best interests of the UK?

7/21/2006 10:41:00 pm  
Blogger ken said...

I was listening to Gardeners Question time on the BBC this week, one reply was; that although a weak solution of soft soap sprayed onto roses would get rid of an aphids, as soft soap was not an EU recognised insecticide its use would be illegal.

This is one of the problems we face with EU regulations, because it turns upside down our basic English Common Law concept that anything is legal unless there is a law against it. Instead we have a situation that it is not legal unless the EU says it is. But I suppose you could always use the soft soap to wash your roses, that would be legal.

This weeks news that the EU Commision bans 22 hair dye ingredients is a case in point, the Commission had asked manufacturers to provide safety files for their substances. The industry failed to submit any safety files for the 22 ingredients, probably because they do not use them. There is no evidence to suggest that these ingredients are not safe, yet they are now banned. Just as there is no evidence to suggest that using soft soap as an insecticide is harmful.

7/22/2006 09:03:00 am  
Anonymous robin said...

The above all proves the point that the UK is better off outside the EU.
Oh Im sorry Nosemoney have I pointed out the obvoius.

7/22/2006 07:31:00 pm  

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