I Read The News Today – Oh Boy

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Yesterday several famous people signed a letter organised by the Stronger In campaign and the Prime Minister walked over the pedestrian crossing outside Abbey Road Studios. Just another day in the life of Britain’s unreal EU referendum.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as eager as the next man to read Benedict Cumberbatch’s political opinions. However, as I perused the impassioned and heartfelt letter to which Jude Law had also added his signature, I could not help but wonder at Aaron Wildavsky’s perennial policy question, “But is it true?”

For the most part, the letter repeats establishment talking points opposing a radical change to the way in which we do politics in this country and the biggest shake-up of the civil service in over 100 years. Echoing sentiments expressed by those selfless warriors after social justice and the public good, David Cameron and George Osborne, Cumberbatch and co tell us that: “many of us [them] have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding or by collaborating across borders”.

I would like to think it goes without saying that leaving the EU does not preclude collaboration across borders. Indeed, if we look at the Cultural Europe Programme, which provides state support for producers and distributors working in the audiovisual sector, we can see that every EEA state participates fully in the Culture and MEDIA sub-programmes, alongside EU Member States and non-EU Member States including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

The Cultural Europe Programme has an annual budget of €182.2 million (around £140 million), which it distributes in the form of grants, aiming to “foster the safeguarding and promotion of European cultural and linguistic diversity and strengthen the competitiveness of the culture and creative sectors”. That money is obviously available to projects hosted across the EU and in other participating countries. By way of contrast, UK-based film productions—that is, excluding the far larger television, radio and computer game industries—expended roughly £1 billion last year.

The UK audiovisual sector is the largest in Europe in cash terms. If there is an industry that need not be concerned about the economic impact of EU exit it is film and television. The UK government would not attempt to leave the EU in anything other than measured steps. It is once Britain moves out into the EEA that we will start to examine and adapt policies to work in the national interest.

To that end, film policy—an area I know quite well—is rife for reform. Successive governments, starting with New Labour and the introduction of the UK Film Council (since folded into the BFI), have turned British film production into a corporatist racket, distributing massive tax breaks to Hollywood studios under the auspices of a policy instrument which was supposed to promote British storytelling.

Specifically, we may wish to review the wording of the BFI Cultural Test. What started out as a mechanism to let Labour ministers ponce around London as if they were Hollywood movie executives… Sorry, let me try that again. What I meant to say was a mechanism to shuffle money out of the public purse into the wallets of the US studios that produce the Bond and Harry Potter films… Dang! Last time… a means to support British film production (phew!), the Cultural Test has been adapted several times since then, making the criteria for what qualifies as a “British film” ever wider.

The latest version of the Cultural Test, introduced by the coalition in November 2014, refers not to “British” characters, actors, locations or subject matter, but to “British or EEA citizens or residents” and subject matter. In other words, a film set in Poland, based on a German short story about Hungarian characters who speak Finnish, could qualify as a “British film”, provided that at least 15 percent of its production budget was spent in the UK.

That may sound extreme, but it is also current UK government policy. What is much more common, however, is for Hollywood studios—with the consent of the UK government—to use the Cultural Test as a means to (effectively) cut production costs. I doubt that many people outside the industry are aware that, as far as the BFI and the UK government are concerned, Inception, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are “British films”. That is something we may wish to change.

Don’t call us Benedict, we’ll call you.

Pig Ignorant And Grossly Offensive To Boot

What is the point of the British legacy media? It is incapable and where capable unwilling to report on reality. It exists only to lie to you.

Sure, for the most part, the hacks are just clueless keyboard thumpers who know not what they do. But why should ignorance be an excuse when these people are being paid?

Everybody makes mistakes. But the extent of the deception and self-deception which bubble journalists evince is on another level. If these people are ill-informed, it is because they want to be. If I type “EU referendum” into a search engine, the top site is EUReferendum.com.

So, by that somewhat circular route, do we come to the focus of this post: this condescending and inaccurate Evening Standard article written by Anthony Hilton. I shall not rebut the entire piece, just a few illustrative examples. If you really must read it in its entirety, follow the link.

EU laws are essentially of two types.

There are three types of EU legislation: Decisions, Regulations, and Directives. A minor point perhaps, but it is indicative of the slipshod manner in which the British press report on EU issues, only to then put themselves at the front of the queue wailing about an absence of facts.

Those aimed at creating the single market — which is most of them — demand that member states respect the free movement of goods and services and require that the products which are to be traded be produced to common minimum standards.

The Single Market (EEA) acquis is one quarter the size of the total EU acquisroughly 26 percent (based on the latest updated figure) of all EU legislative acts in force are “EEA relevant”. Of those more than 80 percent of the legislative categories covered under the EEA acquis fall within the ambit of international standards which the EU is obliged, under the terms of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, to use as the basis for technical regulations within its Single Market.

All trade blocs and trade treaties have these kind of laws.

It is this kind of statement that causes one to doubt Mr Hilton’s honesty. No other trade bloc anywhere else in the world has an executive Commission which proposes and enacts laws that bind its Member States and are judiciable in a supranational court. Mutual recognition of conformity assessment and common regulatory standards do not demand political integration. ASEAN does not pass laws. NAFTA does not pass laws. Even TTIP, should it ever come into force, would not have a legislative function with primacy over and above that of participating nation-states.

People tend not to appreciate that the bulk of EU law has the sole purpose of making the single market work better, which is what British business wants.

What business wants is not relevant in matters of constitutional importance. How and by whom Britain should be governed is a matter for the British electorate. Moreover, as I have just explained, the assertion that “the bulk of EU law has the sole purpose of making the single market work better” is monstrously, maddeningly false.

There is no reason other than political union for Britain’s trade, fisheries, agricultural, energy and environmental policies to be subject to the majority vote of foreign governments. In the land that Mr Hilton inhabits, however, taking decisions further away from the electorate, lengthening lines of accountability, and introducing additional complexity and unnecessary duplication of effort which runs counter to the multilateral harmonisation agenda is more democratic than self-governance and proper global engagement.

This incoherent view hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding that is all too common among the Bubbleteers. In a democracy, the power lies not with the politicians, but with the people. The ultimate back-stop is not Parliament, but the British electorate.

A vote to leave is a vote to take that responsibility unto ourselves, to begin to act like the engaged and active citizenry that we like to think that we are.

The EU Straitjacket

I have just watched the second half of the Prime Minister’s appearance in front of the EU Scrutiny Committee, and you will not be surprised to learn that I was deeply, deeply disappointed. Cameron had a full 90 minutes in which to misrepresent his “new settlement” as presaging a “reformed EU” with a “special status” for Britain. Not once was he challenged on the issue of the text’s “legally binding” character.

Parliament is supposed to hold the executive to account, not meekly accept the Prime Minister’s misrepresentations and dissembling. For the sake of brevity, I shall alight on just one of the points that Cameron made:

If we want, as I want, a big bold Britain getting out there… being in the European Union doesn’t restrain our ability to get things done, it increases it.

This struck a cord with me in light on the posts I have composed and published over recent days. EU membership undoubtedly restricts Britain’s freedom of action—globally and domestically.

Article 34 of the Treaty on European Union binds the UK to the EU’s “common position” on the global standards-setting bodies where a very large proportion of Single Market regulations originate.

The Common Commercial Policy doesn’t only restrict but eliminates Britain’s freedom of action in the area of trade with what the EU calls third-countries. Trade is an exclusive EU competency.

Britain has also surrendered control over what were some of the most productive fishing grounds on the planet under the auspices of the environmentally and ecologically ruinous Common Fisheries Policy, another exclusive EU competency.

The Common Agricultural Policy likewise restrains Britain’s ability to pursue autonomous goals in the area of food production and rural development. Are you starting to see the picture here?

The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide the framework for Britain’s environmental policy. The EU also has a Common Energy Policy, as well as competency in the areas of foreign aid, foreign affairs and defence policy, as determined by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affair’s and as administrated by the EU External Action Service.

EU membership makes policy-making more remote and less accountable to national electorates. That might suit David Cameron and the rest of the political class, but it does not serve us. Taking that confident step out of the smoke and mirrors of the supranational EU into the bracing light of independent self-government and full global engagement is the responsible and empowering choice.

Broadening Our Horizons

I know very little about the organisation UK in a Changing Europe, but whenever I have interacted with its director, Anand Menon, I have found him creditably frank in refuting idiocy on both sides of the referendum debate. His article for the FT about the possibility of enhanced UK-EU co-operation post-exit largely reflects my own view of Brexit.

The crucial point, in my opinion, is that post-exit any such decision would be a conscious policy choice, taken with the knowledge and consent of the British electorate.

Leaving the EU is not about ending our relationship with the EU, it is about reorienting our relationship in a way that is more amenable to both parties.

Outside of the euro and “ever closer union”, Britain has no role in the EU. There are, however, enormous opportunities open to a self-confident, self-governing, free trading UK released from the supranational EU policy straitjacket.

So it is with a degree of respect that I offer the following rejoinder to this UK in a Changing Europe report on the so-called Norway Option. Indeed, I would like to think that these perspectives could inform the organisation’s future work.

The article begins:

Norway is central to the debate about British membership of the EU, because it is often talked about as a possible model for a new UK-EU relationship. Norway is not a member of the EU. It is in the European Economic Area (EEA), along with Iceland and Liechtenstein.

I am happy to promote the Norway Option as a desirable exit route on its own merits, but it is important to note that Flexcit—the only comprehensive transition plan so far presented by any “leave” group—proposes using EFTA EEA membership as a “staging post” for a post-exit UK; a firm foundation on which to build a longer-term relationship centred upon trade and co-operation but without the unwelcome encumbrance of political integration.

The pragmatic acceptance of an EFTA EEA position immediately post-exit eliminates the economic uncertainties that both the UK and the EU would wish to avoid should the British public cast a vote to leave the EU. Regulation, immigration and cost would remain largely unchanged, in the initial phase, so as to facilitate an Article 50 agreement within the minimum two-year timescale guaranteed under the terms of the EU treaties.

With that one rider in mind, let us move on with the UK in a Changing Europe analysis:

Norway follows a lot of the EU laws that the UK currently does

As a proportion, the EEA acquis is one quarter the size of the current EU acquis. Whether that denotes “a lot” is a matter of interpretation. It is also vitally important to note that the EEA acquis falls under the jurisdiction of the EFTA court, which is a very different animal to the avowedly political European Court of Justice (ECJ).

It must, in principle, comply with EU laws on a broad range of issues: the single market, competition, social policy, environmental policy, state aid, transport policy, financial services, indirect taxation, consumer protection and company law.

Apart from agriculture and trade with non-EU countries, Norway is covered by all the significant EU laws that apply to the UK, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellow Damian Chalmers.

Agriculture and trade are two enormous areas of policy with quite extraordinary reach into Britain’s broader policy-making framework. That “apart from” could be interpreted as implying that these policy areas are in some sense diminutive. They most certainly are not. Indeed, trading agility, flexibility and self-representation at the global level are strong reasons to Brexit in their own right.

Damian Chalmers also neglects to mention fisheries, justice & home affairs, foreign aid, foreign and defense policy, in which EFTA EEA members are not bound by common EU policies. Moreover, EFTA EEA states have full self-representation on the increasingly important intergovernmental bodies which define the standards that form the basis for most Single Market regulation. An independent voice, vote and right of reservation at the global level—outside the “common position” of the EU28—gives EFTA EEA members more say than any EU Member State over the standards that are later adopted by the EU.

As EU laws are made, they’re passed to a committee made up of EU civil servants and civil servants from the EEA states to be made into laws that apply in those countries. These have to match the EU version “as closely as possible”.

So in a sense, following this model would mean that the British, like the Norwegians, would become ‘rule-takers’ not ‘rule-makers’. Insofar as EU rules apply to them, they are made by others.

This line about the Norwegians being ‘rule-takers’ rather than ‘rule-makers’ is the reverse of the truth. It is EU Member States which have their voices muted where it really matters. Independent self-governing countries set the agenda which the supranational EU is obliged—by virtue of the international agreements to which it is party—to follow.

Norway has some influence on EU law-making, but it’s limited

That said, the Norwegians are not passive in the EU law-making process.

They are informally consulted on any proposal for a new EU law. Norwegian experts participate in the drafting process like EU member countries’ experts.

Norwegian influence is limited, however, as Norway does not have a vote on the EU law adopted.

Yet EEA enjoy more wiggle room than EU states in their obligation to follow EU law.

EFTA EEA states also have a unilateral opt-out from any EU law. This gives EFTA EEA states, like Norway, more say than any EU Member State, which, while their representatives are present when the EU votes, are nevertheless treaty-bound to abide by decisions-reached under Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in the Council of the EU. Norwegians, on the other hand, need never face the prospect of laws being imposed upon them without the explicit consent of their national representatives.

There are ways for Norway to refer EU laws to its own parliament

Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein can refer a matter for consideration to their own parliaments whenever it is felt to be constitutionally required.

This happens frequently. Since 1 January 2004, it has been used for around 550 EEA measures.

These constitutional requirements do not allow Iceland, Norway or Liechtenstein to opt out of EU law, but greater leeway can be given to the phrase “as closely as possible” in such circumstances.

The Norwegian government, for example, believes that EU rules can be adapted if they involve “a change in Norwegian policy that is considered to be problematic”.

In theory, Norway can refuse to implement an EU law it’s supposed to follow

The EEA Agreement does give Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein a ‘right of reservation’ which allows them not to implement an EU law they would otherwise be required to. Norway has only formally invoked it once, in 2011 over the third Postal Services Directive, which sought to open up the delivery of letters to competition. To put this into perspective, in 2014 Norway implemented 627 EU laws.

The right of reservation may be used so rarely because the EU can suspend the “affected part” of the Agreement in response. Professor Chalmers says that this is a strong countermeasure that will, in many instances, mean shutting down EU market access in the sector. In 2013, after much pressure from the EU, Norway lifted its reservation over the Postal Services Directive.

The other weakness of the right of reservation is that it can only be invoked when laws are being brought in. If Norway passes an EU law and then finds that it has negative consequences, it is not allowed by the Agreement to repeal that law.

While dogmatic “neoliberals” may look with horror upon the ability of national governments to restrict competition in specific industries or product categories, the ability to do so is an example of that democracy thing about which our politicians like to speak but towards which they evince little commitment. Shorter lines of accountability and reduced complexity should concentrate minds. You can’t call it co-operation if one party is not entitled to opt-out; forced collaboration is an oxymoron; a synonymy for coercion.

The remainder of the article addresses the issue of cost, to which I can but say, international co-operation costs money; and the issue of Swiss bilateral agreements, which Britain could not and would not seek to replicate during the course of an Article 50 exit negotiation.

All in all the UK in a Changing Europe piece is not bad, but it would benefit from a greater understanding of the global dynamic that has transformed the way in which interfacing with the rest of the world via the EU, far from enhancing Britain’s influence, severely limits Britain’s ability to fully participate in the global trading and regulatory system.

Rediscovering Our Global Voice

It is all too common for those who do not know very much about the EU and its institutions to disbelieve and even deny the unarguable fact that the EU is a government. This arises at least in part from the way in which the political class and the legacy media conflate the EU and Europe, and Europe and the Single Market. Make no mistake, however, the EU is a government.

The EU is comprised of five supranational institutions: The European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice, the European Council and the Council of the EU (formerly the Council of Ministers). The way in which these institutions operate and interact is quite complex, but the essential point is that EU Member States accept the imposition of a supranational political and judicial overlay which passes legislation and issues binding court judgements that are recognised as superior to their own domestic law and policy-making apparatus.

Over the course of its existence, the EU has assumed ever more competencies or powers. Today that includes exclusive competency in the areas of trade, fisheries and agricultural policy; shared competency in the areas of environmental, energy, transportation, telecommunications, justice and home affairs policy; and supporting competency in the areas of health, industry, culture, tourism and education. It is evident from this list that self-governance and EU membership are mutually incompatible—that is what this referendum is all about; you have to choose.

The idea that self-governance is some kind of an extreme or unwelcome political approach is as absurd as it is offensive and I am very happy to be able to direct people towards this excellent piece by another Leave Alliance blogger in which he focuses his laser-like attention on that specific point. The political class support EU membership because it is in their interests to do so; it is they who are “Stronger In”, not the electorate. Democracy and accountable government are uncomfortable for politicians, but very good for voters. That is how it is supposed to be.

In this context, the idea that EU Treaties, Institutions and Representation have been “reformed” or that the UK has been excluded from “ever closer union” is ridiculous. Political integration is a “salami-slicing” process that occurs day by day with the passage of EU legislation and ECJ court judgements. The only way to opt-out of “ever closer union” is to leave the EU.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the area of trade, which is an exclusive EU competency. This exemplary essay written by Dr Richard North explains how Britain has less say over international standards than its non-EU counterparts as a result of the EU assuming a “common position” on global bodies. This is done under the auspices of Article 34 of the Treaty on European Union.

However, you do not need to take my word for it or even that of Dr Richard North.

The British Standards Institute (BSI) EU referendum report introduces the importance of mutual recognition of conformity assessment and the role of global standards-setting bodies to a wider audience than has previously had exposure to the topic.

In the area of food safety, the BSI recognises that the EU takes standards from a global body called “the Codex Alimentarius Commission (an intergovernmental body sponsored by the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization) and develops them for the EU market, then enacts the provisions”. In the area of automotive manufacture (a major UK industry), the BSI notes, “The EU participates in UNECE [United Nations Economic Commission for Europe] international committees to develop the standards that are adopted as EU law”. The report also specifies that the technical specifications for vehicle safety and automotive parts are “standardised internationally”.

This is all very interesting. Unfortunately, although the BSI report briefly makes mention of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, the authors do not explain that as a signatory to the agreement (as is the UK), the EU is compelled to accept international standards. In other words, Codex and UNECE standards are the de facto standards for the Single Market, except in areas where WTO expressly agrees to allow an exception. Moreover, under the terms of the Vienna and Dresden Agreements the distinction between European (CEN) and international (ISO) standards is in the process of being eliminated. In other words, it is possible, as never before, to drive the standards-setting process from a position outside of the supranational EU.

In a world that is increasingly global, EU Member States are surrendering their voice, vote and right of reservation to the supranational EU, which represents not their national interests—as is the case for all of the independent self-governing countries which participate on these global bodies—but the “common position” of the EU28. That is, the compromise position that EU Member States are able to agree prior to beginning multilateral discussions with other countries in intergovernmental forums at the global level.

Read the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade; read Article 34 of the Treaty on European Union; read the BSI report, which explains the role of UNECE and Codex in the international standards-setting process; and read the Vienna and Dresden Agreements, which re-affirm the EU commitment to working with ISO and IEC to reduce duplication and enhance mutual recognition. The picture is clear.

EU membership does not give Britain more say, in the vitally important area of trade and technical standards, it renders our representatives mute in international forums. Leaving the EU means rediscovering our global voice and driving the standards-setting process from a position of strength, sitting eye-to-eye with our trading partners at the global level.

The Political Class Is Stronger In

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The Remain campaign has nothing positive to say about the EU. It insists upon conflating Europe and the EU; and the EU and the Single Market. These are not people with whom it is possible to debate. They make it impossible to establish common ground.

You might have thought the fact that the Remain campaign is funded by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley would have been a wake-up call for the “progressives” who defend and promote the supranational EU project.

Britain already has a government, we do not not need another one, especially one that exists to dissolve popular sovereignty and deny democracy to those who are most in need the safeguards that can only come from being able to say “no” to people in power.

The fact that the term “political class” is now an everyday part of the political lexicon is a very bad sign for the health of British democracy and the direction in which the country may be headed.

In a real democracy, the “political class” is anybody who involves themselves in the political process—that is everything from voting to organising to writing a blog—and the politicians are the servants of the people.

The way in which the term “political class” is used today implies a layer or tier that is self-identifying and divorced from the rest of society—and that is precisely what one observes.

Outsourcing British policy-making to the EU ensures that you, the electors, the voters, the people, have less say over how and by whom your country is governed. British politicians and their counterparts among the “political class” in other countries don’t see a problem with that.

The Remain campaign is an invitation to the British people to Remain Fearful, Remain Powerless, Remain Subordinate. The “political class” is Stronger In.

The Future Is Multilateral Not Supranational

The EU is in a pretty bad way. Leavers and Remainers agree on that much, I think. After all, the entire purpose of David Cameron’s EU “renegotiation” was to agree a “new relationship” with our European allies which would promote trade and friendly co-operation while excluding Britain from further political integration.

In spite of claims to the contrary, Cameron achieved nothing of the sort. It is not credible to argue otherwise.

What David Cameron now tells us is a “reformed Europe”—the fundamental dishonesty of referring to the EU as Europe still rankles—is something like the worst available option. British institutions remain subordinate to the EU institutions with Britain’s trade and (increasingly) international relations bound by the “common position” of the EU28.

Meanwhile, the members of the eurozone are committed to “completing economic and monetary union” which means more power for the EU in the areas of fiscal and banking policy. That leaves the UK on the periphery with only Denmark for company.

The better alternative is for Britain to leave the EU and agree a genuinely new relationship founded upon intergovernmental collaboration. The future is multilateral not supranational; an open, engaged and internationally-minded country like the UK should be working to develop links with emerging economies and striving to eliminate technical and physical barriers to trade.

Free of the supranational EU’s empire-building agenda, Britain could play an active role in working to reinvigorate global free trade, creating ad hoc alliances (even working closely with the EU when appropriate), and protecting the unique culture that makes Britain an attractive destination for people the world over.

A thoughtful post in the FT by Anand Menon broadly reflects my view of Brexit, when he writes that Britain leaving the EU could enhance European co-operation by freeing Britain of the commitment to “ever closer union” that government after government has told us not to be concerned about ever since signing the Treaty of Rome. There are good reasons for Britain to work with other states in all sorts of areas, but in a democracy governance must have the consent of the governed, which means open debate in national parliaments by politicians who are directly accountable to their electors.

Menon says that he is not sure the same principle (he cites the example of military co-operation) holds in the area of regulation, but anybody who is familiar with the Flexcit plan for a structured approach to EU exit will be well aware of the existence of intergovernmental bodies such as Codex and UNECE, as well as global super-regulators such as ISO. Indeed, the opportunity for Britain to “have its say” in Single Market regulation would be greatly enhanced by EU exit.

This may sound counter-intuitive and it may well even upset some on “my own side” but without the unwelcome political baggage associated with EU membership, Britain and the rest of the EU could work together more closely than ever; productively and amicably as partners and friends, rather than as master and servant.

The cynical politicians want to appeal to your emotions to convince you that doing what is in their interest is a better idea than doing what is in your interest. Don’t fall for it. Outside the EU, Britain would be more democratic and more engaged at the global level. The people we elect would have to take responsibility for their actions and come clean about the trade-offs that are part and parcel of being an independent self-governing country.

That can only benefit our politics. A more engaged, more democratic future is waiting for us outside the EU. We need only the courage to leave.