Richard North, 21/01/2021  

One of the easiest ways of winning an argument is to have a one-sided conversation with yourself on matters about which you know very little, at the conclusion of which you can happily declare the points you have made to be so convincing that you are clearly the victor.

This very much seems to be the technique adopted by the Guardian, a paper which – like so much of the legacy media – has never let its own ignorance prevent it airing its opinions on a subject.

The issue in question, expressed in a stern editorial, is Brexit and bureaucracy, where the paper accuses the Conservatives – not entirely without justice – of continuing "to obsess about the burden to business of red tape, except where it is real – at the EU border".

In making its case, however, the paper makes exactly the same mistake that so many commentators are making, asserting in respect of fish and other animal products that Brexit "imposes cumbersome new procedures". Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge will know that these are not new procedures, but simply newly applied at the borders, as a result of the UK leaving the Single Market.

But there is a more profound point here which completely evades the newspaper, yet it is one which goes to the heart of what the Single Market is all about – but actually requiring a degree of knowledge and understanding of the system to which most journalists can never aspire.

If one takes the meat industry, pre-Brexit, the slaughtering of animals and the onwards processing of meat products, was already subject to a horrendously complex and expensive EU-mandated control regime, the nature of which, post Brexit, is exactly the same in most details.

What differs is that the UK's "competent authority" – required to be established by EU law - is no longer answerable directly to the Commission for the implementation of meat controls, under the supervision of the Dublin-based Food and Veterinary Office.

Nor is the UK subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ and the imposition of sanctions (financial and other), if the law is not enforced to the satisfaction of the Commission.

It was (and is) this system which enables the EU to remove border controls for intra-Union trade, on the basis that, if substandard product is picked up anywhere in the Union by local authorities, it can be traced back to the point of production and the Member State in question can be held responsible for any enforcement failures.

However, since the end of the transition period, the Commission no longer has the power to monitor, supervise and control the implementation of EU laws within the territory of the UK (or Great Britain, as the case may be), it is not able to verify in real time the conformity of meat and meat products to its mandatory standards, and is not able to sanction the UK government in the event of default.

Thus, in the absence of these capabilities, the Commission adds an additional layer of controls at the EU's external borders, requiring pre-notification of the arrival of consignments, and the formal verification of origin, and conformity with safety and quality standards.

This system, however, did not come from nowhere, and has been evolving over a considerable period. Its genesis lies in Directive 64/433/EEC of 26 June 1964, on "health problems affecting intra-Community trade in fresh meat".

At the time of its implementation and for many years afterwards, this Directive applied only to slaughterhouses and cutting premises which engaged in intra-Community trade, thus creating a two-tier system of hygiene enforcement in the meat industry (which applied even before we joined the EEC in 1973).

There were the so-called "export" slaughterhouses, which worked to the (theoretically) higher EEC standard, and the rest – the greater bulk of the industry, largely comprising the medium and small slaughterhouses. These had to conform to the more relaxed domestic standards, but could only sell their products withing the Member State of production. But even the produce from the "export" slaughterhouses was subject to cross-border checks.

Then, in 1992, along came the "completion" of the Single Market. And, to permit meat and meat products to be sold freely throughout the Community, we saw the implementation of a new law, Directive 91/497/EEC.

In terms of the physical standards, this turned out to be a re-enactment of 64/433/EEC, but the big difference was that they were be applied to all but the very smallest slaughterhouses – whether they exported or not. But additionally, the EU's system of regulatory supervision and meat inspection was to be applied to all slaughterhouses, even the very smallest.

At the time, I recall that the Guardian was particularly active in campaigning for the adoption of European laws to all slaughterhouse, arguing that slaughterhouses subject to domestic law were somehow substandard (as indeed some were – especially many of those which were owned and operated by local authorities).

The burden of meeting the physical standards – especially as they were over-zealously applied by the UK's (then) Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – was difficult enough, and put many slaughterhouses out of business.

But what was really crippling was the savage and unthinking imposition of the EU's veterinary inspection system the costs of which were beyond the capability of the industry to sustain. In the decade after the implementation of 91/497, we lost over 1,000 slaughterhouses – a staggering impact on the industry from which it has never really recovered.

So crass (and outdated) was the system that even the EC (as it was then) could not justify its continuation and, just over ten years later, we saw Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 of 29 April 2004, which implemented a more rational (although far from perfect) regime.

To bring the situation up-to-date, now that we are out of the EU, it would be (theoretically) possible for the current Conservative government to "deregulate" the meat industry, reinstating the pre-Single Market "two-tier" system of export and domestic standards.

However, it is not that easy to turn back the clock. The damage has largely been done and the survivors operate in an industry which has restructured itself to take advantage of the Single Market freedoms.

Reversion to the UK's system of inspection might marginally help some small and medium-sized slaughterhouse, except that the system no longer exists. It would have to be rebuilt from scratch, if that is even possible.

Thus, we see the Guardian write about "the tragedy – and the absurdity – of the situation", where Johnson "will feel compelled to indulge the rhetoric of releasing business from a burden of imagined bureaucracy to avoid taking responsibility for the real burden, imposed by him".

And yet, strictly in terms of the meat industry, the newspaper in its time was as responsible for the additional burdens imposed on the industry – with its prolonged campaign for the adoption of "European" standards. Now, the bureaucracy imposed – although heavily modified – is probably here to stay for domestic slaughterhouses.

As for the operations which wish to continue exporting, they will have to deal with the existing "official controls". These apply to all third country produce and other countries seem to be able to cope with them, including New Zealand, Brazil, Botswana and even Canada. In time, our people will get used to them.

But the sad fact is that the past is the past. Although the launch of the Single Market in 1992 needlessly damaged the industry (and the UK public health system), there is no going back.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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