The publication of the first six reports of the Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union has caused some initial concerns among those in the Conservative Party and across the country who would like to see more powers repatriated back from Brussels to Britain. This initial wave of reports auditing the influence of the EU in the UK – and there will be a further 26 produced up to the autumn of 2014 covering a wide range of other policy areas – has given the impression that the officials who compiled them were content with the status quo.
The headlines that this was a ‘Whitehall whitewash’ and that the ‘EU is good for Britain’ will lead many to question whether important policy areas being looked at later in the review will be given the rigorous analysis needed to inform decision-making. When the damage that a number of EU measures are causing to this country is so blindingly obvious, it seems astonishing that that these reports have not been stronger in their criticisms of the EU and the benefits of repatriating more powers.
We know, for instance, that at a time when economic growth and job creation is so important, regulation and red tape emanating from Brussels is costing businesses and families billions of pounds. Research I undertook into new EU laws imposed on this country in the last two years showed that £5 billion of additional costs was being forced on us. Open Europe research found £124 billion of new regulatory costs from the EU presided over by the last Labour Government between 1998 and 2010, while the Government has identified an additional annual bill from EU red tape of £676 million for British businesses since the General Election. The practical impact of these rules is that Britain becomes a more expensive place to do business and costs go up. The European President of Ford, for example, has claimed that EU regulations add £6,000 to the cost of an average car.
However, while the reports and audits published may not have been as critical as we may have expected, we should not be completely shocked by them. After all, these reports have been compiled and published by a coalition Government which is committed to remaining in the EU. The Coalition’s Programme for Government published in 2010 makes this abundantly clear (“The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum”). The civil servants putting these reports together would have been operating under that brief and within that paradigm.
Those of us wishing to see a more radical approach taken must recognise that for the foreseeable future the Government’s focus is on the three Rs – Reform, Repatriation and Renegotiation – rather than withdrawal. The review into the Balance of Competences is not designed to build a comprehensive case for withdrawal from the EU in support of a ‘no’ vote in a referendum. Nor is it meant to portray blueprints for various models of the possible future relationship between the UK and the EU. It is, however, there to provoke further debate on Europe and this is what must now take place.
One noteworthy aspect of the advantages listed in the audits for the policy areas so far examined (the single market, foreign policy, foreign aid, health, animal health and taxation) was that many of these are not exclusively dependent on our membership of the EU. For example, on foreign policy, having a coordinated approach within the EU to crises and the use of sanctions on regimes such as the Iranian and Burmese, was listed as an advantage where the ‘EU adds value.’ However, it is perfectly possible for those benefits to be derived outside of the EU. In international affairs it is important to build up alliances of like-minded countries from Europe, North America, Asia and elsewhere to tackle the world’s biggest problems. We have a strong military alliance with NATO, but this does not require us to surrender huge swathes of sovereignty. Greater cooperation in foreign policy can therefore be achieved without the inconveniences of deep political integration.
Likewise, the benefits we gain from being part of the single market could also be largely derived without many of the political consequences of being a member of the EU. The Review of the Balance of Competences has not looked at our relationship with Europe from this perspective in depth, but it is something that we must consider and debate.
We should also pay close attention to the disadvantages caused by the European Union, some of which the audit has highlighted and seek to expose more. For example, the report into foreign aid stated that: “EU development programme management and delivery are overly complex and inefficient, and the EU does not systematically measure the results that EU aid achieves.” It is scandalous that the EU is wasting hard-pressed British taxpayers’ money in this way and this must stop. The impact of the Working Time Directive on the NHS, red tape on business and other damaging aspects of our membership of the EU must remain high on the political agenda as well.
Indeed, in the build up to the next general election and the formation of our manifesto, as a Party we should not be afraid to continue to debate Europe. This is because the public not only need to be reassured about our commitment to hold a referendum by 2017, but also need to see a clear blueprint of what changes ministers will be looking to achieve post-2015. The Review into the Balance of Competences is part of this process, and as a Party we should be determined to eliminate the disadvantages caused by EU membership and then let the people decide.