EU Referendum

EU Referendum: polluted by ignorance


How illustrative it was that Jeremy Paxman chose to open his programme on "Brussels: Who Really Rules Us?", holding up a cucumber, declaring that: "Everywhere you look, the European Union is telling us what to do".

He then went on to regale us with some details of Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88, laying down quality standards for cucumbers, before informing us that this "notorious curved cucumbers rule has now been repealed, along with the one about bendy bananas".

And there, in just a few sentences the man demonstrated that he knows next to nothing about the EU and, as much to the point, about the way the world works.

For sure, the "notorious curved cucumbers rule" was repealed – by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1221/2008 - but it was replaced by another requirement. The new regulation said:
In order to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade, where specific marketing standards are to be laid down for individual products, these standards should be those as set out in the standards adopted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). For the same reason, other products should be considered to conform to the general marketing standard where the holder is able to show they are in conformity with any such applicable standards.
In essence, such products should meet the "General Marketing Standard" which, in the case of cucumbers is set out in UNECE Standard FFV-15 - an almost exact copy-out of the EU standard. In other words, the EU has outsourced much of its vegetable and fruit marketing regulation, bumping it up to the regional level and, via Codex, to global level.

The marketing regime is now set out in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 543/2011, applying rules across a wide rage of fruits and vegetables including – as we wrote recently - cabbages.

If you understand this, and how the system works, then you are getting somewhere to understanding something of how this complex world is governed. It illustrates perfectly how globalisation is now rampant and pervades virtually every aspect of the EU's activities.

Interestingly though, when it came down to it, veteran MEP Richard Corbett chose to disown the "banana regulation". Asked why it had been repealed, he told Paxman that this was because "it was found not to be necessary". But it was necessary, it is necessary and it hasn't been repealed, living on as Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1333/2011 and, at global level as Codex Standard STAN 205-1997, AMD. 1-2005.

What we see, therefore, is an example of regulation gone global - the ultimate fruit of the 1994 WTO TBT/SPS agreements. But quite what his ignorance tells us about Mr Corbett, I'm not entirely sure – nor, for that matter, Mr Paxman, other than they are both totally out of the loop. However, while Paxman is a BBC journalist - and therefore expected to be ignorant - Corbett, of all people, should know better. He not only should have known that the banana marketing standard is still in force. He should be one of those prepared to defend it.

But what this ignorance does tell us it that we are now living in a world where a vanishingly small proportion of people actually understand how it is regulated. But instead of informed commentary, we have people like Paxman going to Brussels for the state broadcaster to bring back a trivialised documentary that does not even begin to explain how the system works.

Altogether, the way regulation is now treated, the way it is made, and its origins, are proving to be the dividing line between the "knows" and the "know nots". Leading the "know nots" is the eurosceptic "community", which has got itself into a huge muddle, failing to understand the significance of the developments over the last 20 years. 

This piece, yesterday, therefore, had more than usual relevance. It had Charles Portsmouth, director at insurance adviser Moore Stephens, saying that most of the EU legislation that affects the insurance industry is likely "here to stay" whether the UK leaves the EU. In his view: "The UK as a whole and the insurance industry in particular are likely to want to retain access to EU market with a new trade deal".

Portsmouth went on to say that: "The UK insurance sector owes its world-leading status partly to its strength on the European stage and a major part of the UK industry's revenues comes from Europe. To preserve these lucrative ties and be able to sell cross-border, UK-based insurers are likely to find they still have to comply with EU regulation".

He added: "In short, there are no simple answers to predicting what the world would look like on 24 June if the UK votes to leave the European Union. However, much EU legislation affecting the insurance industry is likely to be here to stay, whatever the referendum outcome".

Portsmouth also said that in reality, a wholesale rollback of regulatory pressures originating from the EU after a "leave" vote is unlikely. "Major European-level initiatives such as Solvency II have already been incorporated into UK law; they are an integral part of the system in this country", he said.

And to add to this, we then had John Nelson, chairman of Lloyd's of London, who said that many of the assertions are being made by those, who have "little up to date working knowledge of trade relationships and agreements".

That's the rub. It's not only Paxman and Corbett who are ignorant, but most of the eurosceptic community, who are wedded to the idea of a "bonfire of regulations". In their ignorance, they are joined by almost all the euorphiles and all but a handful of politicians. The entire debate is polluted by such a staggering degree of ignorance that it is rendering the debate over the EU almost meaningless.

Paxman went to Brussels supposedly to find out "where the true power lies" but instead brought back a trivial little squib. Twenty years ago, his film would have looked much the same as it did yesterday – but for a few minor updates.

That typifies what is happening. The warring parties are locked in the past, endlessly rehashing the issues from decades ago, while the world moves on without them. In terms of globalisation, there is a revolution going on out there – and not one of the pundits has noticed.