Richard North, 08/12/2012  

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Sneaked out without any fanfare, with publicity limited to the BBC website, as far as I can ascertain, is the first of the public consultations on William Hague's full audit of EU law and the UK. This is the initiative that was announced last July, with a view to producing a sort of "Doomsday Book" on where we currently stand with the EU. 

According to Owen Paterson, this is the first time we have ever looked at how we are governed in this country (separate post to follow). "A key question for this review will be whether the benefits to the UK of protecting the functioning of the internal market justify the high level of EU competence in this area," he says.

Every department of state is to take part in the process, which is intended to "give everyone, in Government, in Parliament and the British people a far better understanding of an important part of the governance of the UK, on which to ground and develop this country's policies in relation to the EU".

With the process now having been thrown open to public consultation, the lead has been taken by Defra, Paterson's department, as one of the government bodies which is most affected by EU law. The first of four tranches is now up on the Defra website, alongside the Department of Health which is also launching its own consultation with a detailed explanation of the process (see link).

The Defra tranche covers animal health, animal welfare and food safety – including feed safety, food labelling, quality and compositional standards. The next stages in the review are Environment, in the spring of 2013, and agriculture and fisheries, both in the autumn.

To help the current part of its review, Defra has published a list of EU law on which it wants comment. This encompassing some 76 (by my count) statutes, ranging from Council Directive 82/894/EEC on the notification of animal diseases within the Community, to Directive 2009/54 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters.

While some of the law is of a relatively minor nature, also included are major statutes, such as: Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety.

We also see Regulation (EC) No 726/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down Community procedures for the authorisation and supervision of medicinal products for human and veterinary use and establishing a European Medicines Agency, which is a massive piece of law.

Helpfully, the department produces proforma for response, which is also available as a .pdf file, the former allowing it to be completed on screen an e-mailed back to the department.

However, the semi-secretive way the review has been sneaked out, and the relatively short time given for the consultation, which ends on 28 February, suggests that there are dark forces at play. Clearly, the department is not too keen on seeking maximum public participation.

On the other hand, this consultation has been mailed out to a comprehensive consultation list, which will include trade bodies and NGOs, including bodies like WWF and Friends of the Earth. Most of those expected to respond will be europhile in their demeanour, and we can also expect input from the likes of the europhile Open Europe.

The exercise thus presents the eurosceptic community with a huge problem. If it ignores the exercise, the bulk of the public responses, which are to be published alongside the department's report, will be strongly europhile, supporting the status quo

There is little doubt that such responses will be fed into the debate on the future of our relationship with the EU. Thus, we really do not have an option here. To balance the argument and get the points over that we want heard, there is virtually an obligation to take part in this process. It is too important to let go by default.


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