What EU “Red Tape” do Brexiters want to cut?

One prominent claim of the Vote Leave campaign, repeated as a mantra, was the ability post Brexit to cut back on all the “EU Red Tape” that is allegedly “strangling” business and impacting the UK’s ability to compete. Putting aside the obvious that this “red tape” doesn’t seem to be stopping Germany and some other EU states from competing, it’s said that by instigating a “bonfire of regulations”, entrepreneurs will flourish, ushering in a nirvana of prosperity.

Yet, when asked to list specific regulations holding business back that would be abolished post Brexit, no-one was prepared to be specific. An example is James O’Brien questioning a caller to his phone in on LBC. http://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/james-obrien/which-eu-law-are-you-looking-forward-to-losing/ 

On some shows like Question Time, Any Questions or similar some audience members cited outrageous rules on oven glove safety or limits on vacuum cleaner efficiency. If they’re that keen to burn their hand on oven dishes, why bother buying oven gloves in the first place? If you’re buying oven gloves at a street market in the Dordogne don’t you want to be sure they’re fit for purpose? Don’t you think tourists in London expect the same? As for vacuum cleaners, the UK government was in favour of EU limits as part of its climate change strategy. The nonsense about bananas kept being repeated (indeed is still being repeated as a reason some voted to Leave).

More generally, when asked whether products would be less safe, we were assured “of course not”. When asked if environmental standards, such as clean beaches, would be cut back : “don’t be silly”. When asked if working conditions would be degraded: “of course not”. Will farmers be allowed to lower standards of hygiene, animal welfare and harm the environment? Definitely not. Sure, some segments of the population or business would probably like to cut back, but they know they couldn’t possibly get legislation through parliament to do so and the public would not accept degradation of such regulations. We want to drive cars that meet stringent safety and environmental rules; we want to swim on clean beaches; we don’t want to be driving next to a lorry whose driver hasn’t rested all day; we want to eat food that is safe;In fact, many businesses want these regulations retained as they know a “race to the bottom” is not in anyone’s interests.

Now, 6 months after the referendum, Leave advocates are still very unspecific about which regulations they would drop. BIS is currently consulting on what business thinks, but surely the Leave campaign should already have a long list if this was a key part of their argument?

The fact is, in many cases the EU rules are a minimum set of standards and the UK has more stringent rules – why should that change post Brexit? In other case deviating from a common set of standards would increase costs to manufacturers and hence lead to higher prices for consumers. In the arena of the environment, climate change, etc, the UK has international obligations whether it is a member of the EU or not (and  on Climate Change set more demanding targets than the EU). Countries sharing the North Sea, Channel, and Irish Sea with us will not tolerate us polluting those waters, over-fishing them, or otherwise degrading them. Our (current) friends in Scandinavia will not tolerate us reinstituting sulphur rich coal as a fuel and dumping acid rain on them again. If we abrogate carbon reduction targets, we can expect retaliatory trade measures.

Take car safety and environmental standards. These are set at the EU level in negotiation with European and global car manufacturing bodies. The benefit to consumers is that we can all drive cars that are known to be safe and as far as low polluting as reasonably possible. We no longer, for example, have to apply a yellow tint to our car headlights when we take our cars across the Channel to France (yes we really had to do this). Manufacturers know that if they produce cars to such standards they gain economies of scale in manufacturing (hence lower prices) and that their competitors cannot gain an advantage by cutting standards. They can be assured that they won’t get sued because they knowingly produced cars that were unsafe. Outside the EU, British cars would still have to conform to these standards. Manufacturers will not be willing to produce cars to different specifications (whether more stringent or less stringent) or, if they do, at the same price. Cars manufactured in the UK to lower standards will not be permitted for sale in the EU, so whether they think it a good idea or not, UK manufacturers will still have to conform to EU rules for UK built cars.

Similarly with other product safety standards, such as the CE mark. There will be no advantage in a UK regulated “GB” mark that deviates from the CE rules. Manufacturers also won’t want to produce oven gloves, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, etc to different standards just for a market of 60 million without charging more for them. We’re not going to go back to Imperial units as the rest of the world (apart from the US) uses metric.

Hence, whether in the EU or not, for a vast range of regulations we will have to abide by EU rules. Outside the EU, though, we will have to set up and fund agencies that act to replicate EU rules in the UK and represent UK requirements to the EU bodies (but with a lot less leverage to get them accepted). That’ll cost money that will reduce any savings from our subscription to the EU. For vast swathes of these EU rules there is no national interest in having no regulations or in having different regulations. There is no competitive advantage to businesses in having no regulation or different regulations (indeed there is considerable competitive DISADVANTAGE). And for consumers there is no benefit in having no or different regulations (and probably cost, functional or safety disadvantages).

Doubtless there are some regulations that are overkill either in total or for segments of the market, but in many cases these are a result of “gold plating” by UK civil servants (the decision to prosecute the “metric martyrs” was a UK decision, not required by the EU).

So, when anyone says we can “cut EU red tape” ask them to be specific about what red tape they’ll cut, whether the electorate or parliament would be will to agree, and whether we have any choice in a globally connected market. Unless there has been a fundamental change in attitudes to regulation for health and safety,  consumer protection, environment, climate change, workers’  rights and a whole raft of other protections we take for granted, then it’s highly unlikely any of these will change. And if anyone proposes that they do be “reined back” be very careful and work out what they really want to do. You probably won’t like it.