I’ve long been convinced that a sizable amount of the anger generated by EU legislation is due more to the British government’s own implementation than the legislation itself. In the UK, we always seem to implement directives and other Brussels-generated laws far more stringently than our continental cousins, following things to the letter rather than taking a more flexible approach.
Now, however, we would appear to moving towards some measure of proof, thanks to initial findings from an under-reported Treasury consultation by Lord Davidson, which has found that
“Government teams responsible for applying European Union laws are often under-engaged, poorly resourced and prone to making mistakes because they are in a hurry”
In his introduction, Lord Davidson notes that
“creating obligations additional to the EU minimum requirements – where it cannot be demonstrated that the benefits exceed the costs – can hamper UK productivity, innovation and competitiveness”
And therein lies part of the problem in terms of public perception of the EU. If a law is brought in “because the EU told us to”, the assumption is generally that the law is also brought in “in the manner the EU told us to” – and therefore if and when said law starts causing problems, it is the EU that gets the blame.
Though Davidson’s findings have not yet been finalised, it would appear that evidence is building to support my suspicions that in a large number of cases it is actually the incompetence of the UK government’s implementation of those laws rather than necessarily the laws themselves which are causing the problems.
After all, other EU member states never seem to have quite the same problems that the UK does when it comes to EU legislation, and always seem to manage to find loopholes – why can’t we? (New Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett’s piss-poor attempts to ensure British farmers receive their EU subsidies in a timely manner while she was at DEFRA being a prime example of the UK being utterly rubbish at working with EU systems when every other member state copes fine.)
Of course, a lot of the problem is thanks to there still – more than three decades after having joined what is now the European Union – no real system in place in Westminster to scrutinise EU legislation. The closest we’ve got is the Commons’ European Scrutiny Select Committee and Lords’ European Union Select Committee – neither of which have the manpower or resources to keep tabs on everything.
As such, it is very easy, as Davidson’s report notes, for departments to implement legislation badly or excessively – it is, after all, easier to simply rubber-stamp than to analyse, and quite simple to attach additional demands for governmental purposes and then blame it on Brussels:
“Over-implementation of European legislation may arise in a number of ways, including: extending the scope of European legislation; bringing EU-derived obligations into force earlier than required; failing to streamline the overlap between existing legislation in force in the UK and new EU-sources legislation; or uncertainty created by lack of clarity about the objectives or status of regulations and guidance.”
Of course, what we really want to know, when Davidson publishes his final report at the end of the year, is to what extent this is due to incompetence, to what extent deliberate deception on the part of the government. Because blaming Brussels is a very easy cop out, and has been an extremely handy excuse for government after government ever since we joined.
Were our government forced finally to make a real effort when it comes to EU legislation, it’s just possible that we might end up with fewer scare stories about EU bureaucrats banning things left, right and centre or imposing burdensome new rules on our businesses. At a push, people may even start to be able to see benefits from EU legislation which has, seemingly thanks to our own government’s inability to do its job properly, to date been seen as largely negative.