Nicholas Finney OBE has worked for various UK port owners over many years. He is a former Director General of the British Ports Federation. He writes in a personal capacity.
The fight to stop the European Commission from implementing the proposed European Port Services Regulation continues. It’s a fight that has been going on for more than ten years. But Brussels officials doggedly refuse to recognise that after two overwhelming defeats in the European Parliament they should pack up shop on this measure and honour the pledge to cut unnecessary and damaging regulations. A further vote is due this Tuesday.
What a case study the EPSR has become as an illustration of all that is wrong with our laws being determined in Brussels. Students of European law in years to come will be flummoxed by the voluminous texts of impenetrable eurospeak and the mysteries of convoluted U-turns. They will turn to one another with desperation as they try to work out how each successive text bears any relationship to achieving objectives long since forgotten.
Serious concerns about the detrimental impact that this regulation would have on our privately funded ports industry were expressed again in 2013. The UK Government tried to respond to these fears. During negotiations to agree a new version of the text at the European Council in 2014, agreement on a “General Approach” text failed to provide any real protection.
That didn’t stop Ministers and officials trumpeting the inclusion of a “Competitive Market Exemption” as a great success for Britain. In reality, the exemption only applied to a small part of the Regulation and, in any case, its application depended on the approval of the Commission. But even that has disappeared following further text changes at the European Parliament’s TRAN Committee two weeks ago. Once again, the UK has been ignored.
The champion of this measure in the EP is the Rapporteur, Knut Fleckenstein, who hails from the Hanseatic State of Hamburg, itself one of Germany’s largest ports – so large that it has received over a billion euros in state aid over the past few years. But Knut has another aim for these negotiations. He wants Margrethe Vestager, the Competition Commissioner, to agree a block exemption for seaports receiving state aids so that they are free of any possible state aid investigation. Surely not another example of self-interest determining European law making?
This wouldn’t matter if we could secure relief from this wretched regulation. However, this unloved text is destined to be debated by a plenary session of the European Parliament because the TRAN Committee failed by one vote to give Fleckenstein a mandate to enter final negotiations. By such slender margins do the fate of nations lie whilst commission officials toil yet harder to impose their will on member states.
What role now for the UK Government and Parliament in protecting UK interests? So far, Parliament, in the form of the European Scrutiny Committee, have been steadfast in refusing to allow the matter to pass scrutiny. They have repeatedly asked for a full debate on the floor of the Commons. Twice the Government’s attempts to circumvent scrutiny through the Committee have fallen, primarily because it feared defeat. This has become an embarrassing shambles.
The message is clear: no-one on either side of the House wants this regulation imposed on the UK. So why is the Government so lacking in its application to protect UK interests? Could it simply be that it cannot find a way without confronting the Commission? Has it worked assiduously enough with other member states to defeat it when those Governments are equally concerned about the PSR, some for different reasons?
Indeed, the likeable and competent Shipping Minister, Robert Goodwill, publically opined at an event during International Shipping week last September that “the industry will just have to live with the regulation” whilst claiming that the Government “has made the best of a bad job”. If we cannot protect a vital part of our privately funded infrastructure from damage, what chance have we got of defending far larger chunks of UK commerce and industry under the so-called new deal for Britain? Are we to be subjected to Commission determination of our vital interests still?
This is the offer from Donald Tusk as a draft declaration: “The Commission will establish a mechanism to review the body of existing EU legislation for its compliance with the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality, building on existing processes and with a view to ensuring the full implementation of this principle.” The PSR is the perfect example of all that can be wrong with both EU principles and process.
If the Prime Minister’s negotiations are to be evenly modestly fulfilled, he should demonstrate his real commitment to reform by insisting that all such controversial draft regulations like the PSR are suspended until the re-assessment of their status can be completed under the terms of the EU declaration. Mind you, simply scrapping it would be better all round .