Britain’s sovereignty, the Brexiteers say, has been so eroded by the EU that it has all but vanished. Now our laws are dictated by the whims of Brussels eurocrats.
There is some truth in this, but only a small truth. The real destroyer of sovereignty is globalisation and Britain will have to bend to that regardless of whether it is in or out of the EU.
Recently, Business for Britain, an out-er campaign group, claimed that exhaustive research had “definitively” proved that 64.7 per cent of laws were “influenced” by Brussels.
Actually, as the House of Commons Library said in 2010, having been asked to come up with an answer to this question, “there is no totally accurate, rational or useful way” of making this calculation.
Do you, for example, count numbers of Acts and statutory instruments?
And if you do, how does a three-page regulation covering olive oil analysis compare with, say, Westminster’s 457-page Health and Social Care Act 2012?
Neither do raw numbers indicate the importance of a piece of legislation. The Commons Library report noted drily: “For example, the UK’s European Communities (Finance) Act 2001 to adopt the Council Decision on the EU’s system of own resources was more significant in terms of its impact than, for example, the Olympic Symbol etc (Protection) Act 1995.”
How EU laws affect the daily lives of citizens or businesses doesn’t show up in numbers. The report, in an excellent researcher’s joke, notes: “For example, the ‘working time directive’ is arguably of far greater significance to the working population of the member states than, for example, the Commission regulation on ‘The classification of padded waistcoats in the Combined Nomenclature’.” (No, I don’t know either, only that it may not be a great weekend trip).
For what it is worth, the Commons report estimated that “over the twelve-year period from 1997 to 2009, 6.8 per cent of primary legislation (Statutes or Acts) and 14.1 per cent of secondary legislation (Statutory Instruments) had a role in implementing EU obligations, although the degree of involvement varied from passing reference to explicit implementation.”
Regardless of the percentages, the important point is that most of these laws aim to bring manufacturing and service provision standards across the 28 member states into line so one country’s widget-maker can sell to all other countries.
They are about getting rid of non-tariff barriers to trade – those little specifications about components or sub-clauses in financial deals which are designed to protect a domestic company from foreign competition.
They are about creating the single market of 510 million people which is what the out-ers say the EU should only be about. And if it was only about that, there would be, presumably, no Brexit demand.
But here’s the rub. If we are to carry on selling goods and services to the EU, trade which was worth £230 billion in 2014, we are still going to have to agree to all those regulations.
Just as we don’t want Chinese toy-makers selling us kid’s playthings with toxic chemicals, the EU would not want our stuff which doesn’t meet their standards. This is what makes globalisation work – common regulation.
And it isn’t just the EU. Consider this – Switzerland, not in the EU and whose EU trade is governed by about 200 bilateral treaties, has had to abandon its highly-prized banking secrecy laws.
It was nothing to do with the EU but at the insistence of the US government in pursuit of US tax-dodgers.
If the Swiss didn’t open up bank accounts of US citizens to external inspection, the US said, Swiss banks would lose their licences to trade in US dollars, shutting down their Wall Street offices.
That’s the raw power of globalisation and in dealing with it, I’d rather be part of a big EU rather than just a small island.
Peter Jones is a freelance journalist based in Scotland, working primarily for The Economist and The Times, specialising in business, economics and politics.