Gisela Stuart is Chair of Change Britain. She was Chair of Vote Leave, and is a former Health Minister.
The Brussels machinery is a creature of habit. It is far more comfortable making decisions based on prior experience and established precedent, rather than acting with agility and adapting fast to changing circumstances.
This is an argument Vote Leave made during the referendum campaign. The EU is a 20th century institution which struggles to cope with the challenges of the modern world, such as the Eurozone crisis and the vast movement of people across the continent.
It is through this lens that we should look at the current debate over ‘regulatory alignment’. The EU is now having to deal with Brexit – the biggest shakeup to the institution in its 60-year history – but simply lacks the institutional ability to innovate and react to this unique challenge. This is why its default position is to revert back to what has gone before, and to base its strategy on previous agreements. Hence the calls for any future Brexit deal to be based on ‘Regulatory alignment’.
The Government has been eager to try and placate the Leave caucus within the Conservative Party, by claiming that such alignment does not mean harmonisation. Instead, according to David Davis, it is more to do with having ‘mutually recognised rules’.
If only. ‘Regulatory alignment’ may just be two words, but they could dramatically influence our future relationship with the European Union – and not in the way the Government thinks.
From the point of view of Brussels, ‘regulatory alignment’ comes with a whole host of conditions. To see exactly what this entails, one only has to look at the precedent set in previous trade agreements which the EU has made with third countries.
The EU-Ukraine deal from 2015 makes clear that regulatory alignment means that ‘Ukraine shall… incorporate the relevant EU acquis into its legislation’. It goes on to note that ‘Ukraine shall… align [its] legislation progressively with the corresponding EU acquis’, and that Ukraine should refrain from amending legislation listed for alignment ‘except in order to align such legislation progressively with the corresponding EU acquis.’
To put this in plain English, in industries covered in the EU-Ukraine agreement, Ukraine must align itself with EU law and cannot introduce new legislation unless it meets the standards set by Brussels.
Make no mistake. This is Single Market membership in all but name. And to make matters worse, Ukraine has no representatives in the EU who can help shape this legislation for the benefit of its own businesses or economy.
This is what the UK is currently facing if we choose to accept regulatory alignment. We will not be in control of our laws; we will have no say over how they’re formulated, and we will become rule-takers in a countless number of policy areas. And whilst the Government may try to calm people’s nerves with the notion of ‘mutual recognition’, the truth is that the only rules that will be recognised will be the EU’s own.
This is not what people voted for last June. They wanted to see a real change in how this country is run. They wanted politicians to do things differently, and not to be hamstrung by Brussels nor be able to blame the EU for their own shortcomings. And crucially, they voted to take back control.
It would therefore be wholly unacceptable if we were forced into a deal where we were unable to create our own regulatory system which suits the needs of British business, and instead be subject to rules designed and imposed by Brussels.
This is why the Prime Minister must reach an agreement which lays out clearly in black and white that the UK will not be relegated to the position of ‘rule-taker’. And crucially, it must be worded as to ensure that it cannot be misinterpreted. Otherwise, we can be sure that Brussels will point to the precedents set out in previous trade agreements, and force the UK to adopt EU legislation – the same legislation which the British people voted to free itself from last year.