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Brexit: the exercise of power

2018-04-08 06:47:13

Booker only does a short Brexit-related piece in his column this week, but one nicely calculated to tweak the tails of the "ultra" Brexiteers.

One of those many Brexit "elephants in the room" which remain invisible to politicians and the media, he writes, is the amount of laws which now originate from global bodies and are then just passed on by the EU. So we will still have to comply with them after Brexit.

This is a point I have been banging on about forever, and one he raised in his column on 26 January 2013 - over five years ago. Booker and I both have raised the issue many times, and we're far from being alone. But it is very clear that the point has not registered with the majority of pundits, and hardly at all at Westminster.

That is especially the case with the EU's Single Market, where over 90 percent of the areas covered come within the purview of international bodies (or regional bodies such as UNECE) and are, therefore, potentially subject to international standards determined at a higher level than the EU.

Given the state of ignorance in Westminster, it is inevitable that the report from the Brexit select committee which looked at the Efta/EEA option failed to record how this affects Efta state members of the EEA.

Unlike EU-EEA members, where the EU represent them on international bodies and has exclusive competence on trade policy, each of the Efta states represent themselves on these bodies and, depending on how they manage and prioritise their activities, can have significant influence in shaping global standards.

This is far more than the mere decision shaping that Efta claims, where even small states such as Norway can set the agenda and, by concentrating on areas of economic (or political) interest to them, can often bring to fruition standards that they have initiated.

I've discussed the process on the blog many times, and of the many posts I've published,this one where I interviewed Anne Tvinnereim in Norway in August 2013 still stands out. It was one of a series of interviews we did for a film funded by the late Peter Troy on the Norway option.

Three other blogposts (here, here and here - the latter with a six-minute You-tube interview) came from an interview with Bjorn Knudtsen, a Norwegian vet who chaired the Fish and Fisheries Product Committee of the Codex Alimentarius, demonstrating how the process of influencing international standards works in practice.

These interviews and much more went to inform the writing of Flexcit and, in particular, Chapter 9 (page 178 et seq). This makes Flexcit still a highly relevant document and one which still takes the subject far beyond the limited understanding of the likes of the Brexit select committee.

The relationships are illustrated in the diagram above (also taken from Flexcit and one submitted to the IEA as part of its botched Brexit competition) which shows an entertaining situation where a country such as Norway can frame a standard which is then adopted by a global body and then turned by the EU into law which then becomes EEA law which is then, finally, adopted by Norway which started the whole process off in the first place.

It says much for failure of the media and the politicians (to say nothing of the referendum campaigns) that this dynamic is still so little known or understood, and how profoundly ignorant so many of our Brexit pundits remain.

Given the limitations of space in his column, Booker can only allude to such issues and it is too much to expect that his comic of a newspaper would give him more space to develop an issue, of which none of its "stars" seem to be aware.

However, Booker does get to write about another example, one raised by the continuing furore over the decision that our new blue UK passports should not be made in Britain but by a Franco-Dutch firm.

By many, this is being blamed on our slavish obedience to the "EU's procurement rules", which ordain that government contracts must be offered internationally and go to the lowest bidder. But, says Booker, even after Brexit we will still have to do this under the rules of the WTO: those very rules which ultra-Brexiteers fondly imagine will somehow solve all our problems even if we leave with "no deal".

What is even less known is that the format and contents of passports are also all dictated at global level, for historical reasons by the International Civil Aviation Organisation as we discussed in this blogpost and mentioned by Booker in his column at the end of the year.

Thus, he wrote, virtually the only detail we will be allowed to choose for ourselves will be their colour and, of course, the right to remove the words "European Union" from the front.

All this will do though is put us on a par with the other independent countries making up the European Free Trade Association. And the light-blue colour we seem likely to choose is the same as that already used by little Iceland. So much for this "expression of our independence and sovereignty" as a "proud great nation". Going further down the line, we find that that the decision in 1981 to adopt the burgundy colour was non-binding and the UK government could have decided to retain the original colour.

As for the general rules on the use and recognition of passports, these stem from the 1920 Paris Passport Conference which led to the 1925 memorandum produced under the aegis of the League of Nations. This laid the international foundations of the global passport system.

This existence of an upper-tier of international rules led me to develop the concept of the double coffin lid back in November 2013, redolent of the victim in a horror movie, trapped alive in an as-yet unburied coffin. Having broken through the lid in a bid to escape, he finds to his consternation that there is another lid over the first.

So often with EU laws, when we examine their provenance, we find that they have international origins. Thus, much of the process of Brexit is going to be one of discarding EU law only to find the "double coffin lid" of international law replacing it. Ultimately, there will be very little change in the laws that govern us.

This necessarily begs the question as to why leaving the EU is so desirable. The answer is that, in theory, Brexit gives us the ability to reject international rules before they apply. However, many international agreements that we sign are binding and create little choice when it comes to adopting their requirements. In or out of the EU, we would be bound by them.

The crucial difference, therefore, has to be found elsewhere. And that is in the ability to influence and shape the rules that will eventually become EU laws before they reach the EU. Outside the EU, we regain the ability to shape the international agenda that was relinquished when we became part of the EEC.

For sure, as an individual state, we have less influence than when working as part of a bloc. But there is little merit in successfully being able to force through rules by weight of numbers that we didn't want anyway as is so often the case.

Nevertheless, playing the international field is not the easy option and nor is it likely to be cheap. Where the EU represents us on international committees, it often saves us the considerable costs of sending our own people and providing the administrative support. With thousands of technical committees in existence throughout the world, the cost of full participation will cost hundreds of millions.

Then, very often, the heft that a representative can deliver will very often depend on the technical case that can be presented. The EU scores here by devoting billions of its multi-billion annual research programme to standards development. To match the EU (and the US), the UK will have to fund substantial programmes of its own.

All of that would give us much greater control and that, in the final analysis, is what Brexit is all about. But it is rash to assert that there are financial savings to be had. The exercise of power costs money. And that is a lesson we will need to re-learn.