Nicholas Finney OBE works for United Kingdom Major Ports Association as a consultant with colleagues in Europe. He is a former Director General of the British Ports Federation.
Interference with the single market. The compulsory disclosure of the terms of commercial agreements. And yet another public sector regulator. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? But that’s the approach the European Commission is seeking to impose on Europe’s seaports – for the third time. And, as usual, the UK will be the worst off.
Let me introduce you to a little known (some would say obscure) tussle between the UK and the European Economic Union . Some eight years ago, the Commission decided to introduce a Directive to make Europe’s seaports more efficient and competitive. The Directive was intended to liberalise port service markets across Europe, setting up rules to change the nature of port operations, including the introduction of many new and competing services within ports .
This proposed Directive – supported by ship owners but opposed by ports and trade unions – was felt to be overly-bureaucratic, with harmful effects on inward investment and health and safety. It was narrowly defeated in a plenary session of the European Parliament in 2003.
Less than a year later, the Commission introduced a proposed Directive Mark 2 . This time round, it was was defeated in 2006 – by a massive 532 votes to 120. One might think that the European Commission had had enough.
Not so; the Commission waited a bit longer, but then came back in 2012 with a third proposal – the Port Services Regulation. Notice the difference: the Directive has now become a Regulation.This gives the Commission direct powers to implement and police its application. But there was also a subtle difference between it and the other two failed attempts. This time, in a move to appease the European Trade Unions, cargo handling was taken out of the scope of the regulation.
The Commission patiently moved ahead with discussions through the Council of Ministers and at European Parliament level. The same opposition as before was present – particularly in the UK, in which a truly liberalised market now exists for port services, supported by sound and well-run relationships between employers and unions. And those unions, fearing the same consequences as before at European level, were convinced that the Commission will simply bring in cargo handling at some later stage . So articulate opposition was mounted again to prevent the proposals making any progress.
But now suddenly – due to the extraordinary promotion of the draft directive by the Italian presidency – a crisis has arisen. Panic has sets in for some form of negotiated settlement between the Regulation’s supporters and opponents – one which will cause the least harm to the largely privately owned seaports industry in the UK. A Council of Ministers meeting scheduled for October this year may decide to approve the Regulation.
But here’s the rub. UK civil servants, applying the long-standing principle that nothing is ever actually voted against in Europe, are putting pressure on the Government to set terms of reference which would allow agreement to be reached, if necessary, in October. So a Commons Standing Committee has been formed and required to meet this Wednesday, September 3, so that the necessary Parliamentary cover can be granted to Business Department officials and our Permanent Representative to the EU (UKREP) enabling an agreement to be reached if necessary : a compromise, of course.
There is a long way still to go, and the dockers may still play their part in Europe by eyeballing the European Parliament. But the process by which British interests are protected once again look flawed. As Bill Cash says in his European Scrutiny Committee’s report of last year, there is a mounting democratic deficit which cannot be allowed to continue. Parliament must be allowed to veto rules and regulations which it deems are harmful to UK interests, or which impinge on our sovereign rights as a nation.
So perhaps the time has come to test out that idea – to create, BREXIT if necessary, by having a test run on a measure to do exactly that. I am no European Constitutional lawyer and, no doubt, those of greater skill and expertise will say that we would simply be taken to the European Court and be forced to comply.
But we would have demonstrated an important principle – that the clock has stopped on automatic UK compliance with continual compromise on accepting measures that could damage investment and jobs for the sake of a powerful, controlling bureaucracy in Brussels. Far better to test our resolve on a measure which may not be at the forefront of public debate, but which is of vital importance to owners and employees in a dynamic part of British Industry.
It’s a forlorn hope, perhaps. But wouldn’t it be good if European Standing Committee A broke with tradition and convention on Wednesday and said “non” to any agreement by the UK to the third attempt to bring in powers from Brussels to interfere in our domestic seaports industry. It would send a signal to our partners in Europe that we were deadly serious about our intentions to reform or depart.