Saturday, 27 February 2016

Taking InFacts to task

Michael Gove, apparently

The great thing about being independent of any party line or tribal loyalty to a campaign is that I can attack idiocy with impunity. I don't have to side with Michael Gove or defend him when he's attacked - and I'm not going to, but that doesn't mean I'm doing any favours for InFacts, the europhile propaganda unit of Hugo Dixon. Just a cursory fisking shows that InFacts are just as dinosauric as Michael Gove. Let's take a look!
Michael Gove has been widely praised for writing a well argued essay explaining why Britain should quit the EU. The justice minister’s case is actually full of misleading examples and downright contradictions.

“I believe that … the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change”

EU laws have to be agreed by ministers in the Council – in which the UK government has influence and has been on the winning side 87% of the time. They also usually have to be approved by the directly elected representatives in the European parliament, 73 of whom are British. The justice secretary is just plain wrong when he says later no British politician can “alter in any way” EU legislation.

Gove must also be aware that the government has a veto on EU harmonised taxes, so it can block any tax law it does not like. He also presumably knows that only 2.15% of the £600 billion-odd in taxes British people pay goes to the EU – and a big chunk of that comes back.
This is going to be one of those interminable disputes that will go on until the end of time - or until Britain leaves the EU. Gove believes the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. I have a lot of sympathy with this view. That's exactly what I want too. Where I differ is that I live on planet Earth and I understand that this highly improbable.

We are always going to have to compromise on some of our laws, we won't have a deciding say in all of them and though I am in this for the very purpose of extensive democratic reform, even I recognise there will be limitations. The EU debate though, is more a question of extent. On what do we compromise, and in what areas do we cede sovereignty - and to whom.

It is my view that the EU holds too much power over areas where it should never hold power - as this post will demonstrate. Furthermore, sovereignty pooling should only ever be acceptable when the power is on loan. Where the EU is concerned, the dynamic is power flowing persistently away from the people and into the hands of the unwanted and irremovable - without the ultimate right to say no. Selective and partial vetoes will forever be insufficient. 

InFacts can bleat all they like about "elected representatives" and percentages of votes til the cows come home, but that will never make the EU a democracy. They obsess over ritual and process but the people themselves are not empowered to change the laws they live by. In theory they can, in practice they cannot. This is why the EU is so fundamentally unreformable - and it is why the Prime Minister didn't even attempt real EU reform. He knows as well as the rest of us that it's never going to happen.
“Hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk none of which were requested by the UK Parliament”

The British government regularly asks Brussels to act in particular areas – for example to create a single market in energy, capital markets, and digital – as well as to sign a free trade deal with the US. All are areas the EU is currently working on.
Britain will always be a law taker and there will always be instances where parliament has had no direct say and is in any instance not a good mechanism for scrutiny. Even over the last year, my views have evolved in that we're never going to have full control over the laws we adopt and parliament couldn't reasonably sift through all of them. Gove is just not on this planet if he thinks leaving the EU means an end to rules made over and above the UK legislature.

The point, however, is that Brexit gives us some choice in which areas we opt out from - where there is no need of a common framework - and where a common framework is more to do with advancing a political agenda rather than removing barriers to trade.

But then InFacts need pulling up too. We have asked Brussels to initiate a number of trade deals. The point is, we shouldn't have to - and we do better by dealing direct. TTIP for instance has already been years in the making and won't come to fruition any time soon. We'd have got further with a series of partial cope agreements suited to those UK industries who trade with the US - and those could have been accomplished sooner and we could be enjoying the benefits of them already.

As to the rules of digital single market and banking rules, the EU will soon find it has the same problem as Gove, with hundreds, if not thousands of new rules landing on Commissioners desks, none of which were requested by any parliament or any commissioner. The EU is just as much a law taker - and the technical rules will be made by global super-regulators - the real top tables where we need our own independent voice.
The government “cannot remove or reduce VAT”

VAT is harmonised within the single market for a very good reason – as products can be freely transported across borders, you do not want people simply shopping around for the country with the lowest rate. That said, Britain is still free to cut the main VAT rate to as low as 15%, or to offer a reduced rate on a range of extra products and services. It is a bit rich for Gove, who was part of the government that jacked up VAT to 20%, to suggest the EU won’t let us cut it.
This demonstrates the folly of any people's campaign rallying around politicians. It's hard not to share a chuckle with InFacts in that this Tory government are probably the least economically liberal bunch we've had for a long time. One in which Gove is a serving cabinet member. That is why I have argued that this should remain a people's campaign that bypasses the politicians. It actually shows how unpractised the media and public are in handling referendums.

But that's really besides the point. The point is we couldn't go lower than 15% if we wanted to and we don't get to pick and choose what it applies to. We should have better means of lodging exemptions - and the process for obtaining them is cumbersome, slow and all too often futile.

It is my personal view that Eurosceptics are deluded if they believe we could junk VAT if we left the EU, and even if we had the freedom to remove it, we probably wouldn't nor would we significantly deviate from EU levels. Doing so could create more problems than competitive advantages.That said, VAT is long overdue a massive overhaul. It needs major reform, and that is not going to happen while we are in the EU. Being outside of the EU gives us certain leverage so that we could put that at the top of the EU agenda in ways we presently cannot.
The government “cannot support a steel plant through troubled times”

Gove is referring to the EU’s state aid rules, which mean a general prohibition on governments subsidising particular companies or sectors. Such rules are intended to prevent protectionist-minded governments from distorting or harming competition. For example, the Commission is now using them to investigate sweetheart tax arrangements for multinationals and to stop Estonia subsidising its national flag-carrier.

The British government “support[s] strong State aid rules to ensure aid is well targeted ”, citing the benefits such strong rules can have for innovation, new market entrants and consumers. Leon Brittan, a British Conservative, bears a lot of the credit for the EU’s tough anti-subsidy rules. It’s odd that Gove is wearing a protectionist cloak.
I've studiously avoided diving into this one because it's a minefield. It is multifaceted and heaping all of the blame on the EU is as petulant as it looks. In this, Gove, among many other supposed free marketeers have hinted they would like to see protectionist measures which does our cause no favours among undecided conservatives. We don't want to be protectionist, but then at the same time, reserving a base level of steel capacity as a strategic national asset may well be justified. That's a debate we need to have - where we may find the EU an obstacle.

In this, our own government could have done more with the powers it has to protect our steel industry and has failed, but what we can say is that EU energy policy in tandem with our own maladministration has no done the sector any favours at all.

For me, the point is a broader one in that the global steel industry is under heavy stresses and nobody, not even China, coping very well in a turbulent global market. In sectors like this it is only natural to expect Western producers with high wage costs and (rightly) considerably tighter regulations, that we will see some plants closing.

What matters is our capacity to adapt and mitigate, in which case, while we have lost a thousand jobs in the industry just recently, a nation with its own trade policy would have the agility to easily replace those jobs. For me, that is one the deciding factors in my decision to vote to leave.
The government “cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country”

As InFacts has previously shown, the UK can still deport those it deems a serious threat.

Of course, each situation needs to be taken on its own merits, and the government does not have unlimited freedom of action. It has to operate within the law. But isn’t that something Gove should welcome? In the very same essay where he rails against the government’s lack of untrammelled powers, the justice secretary sings the praises of checks and balances, noting with approval that “in Britain … we ensured no-one could be arbitrarily detained at the behest of the government”.
Unusually, I'm going to bottle this one because it's a whole different strata of the debate that requires individual examination. In a lot of cases, we see that while we hate the results of such trials, having to play host to some unsavoury individuals, from the perspective of human rights judgements, they often prove to be correct. The law is very much an ass, and while it sucks that we have to put up with it, I prefer it to the state having the power to act arbitrarily.

It should also be noted that the ECHR is not an EU institution, and Brexit is not going to provide any immediate remedy to our problems. Much will carry over when we leave. What matters is that when we come to review and reform the various legal constructs, Britain will be a wholly independent voice - as indeed Norway is. Flexcit has more to say on this than I do.
EU rules dictate … the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).

Gove is presumably thinking of the Habitats Directive, which says countries should take “appropriate steps” to avoid disturbance of protected species in special conservation areas. But nowhere does it say houses can’t be built within 5 kilometres of such areas.

Under UK regulations implementing the directive, Natural England, the public body responsible for wildlife protection, can put the brakes on any building development plans which it feels might have a significant effect on such conservation areas. Natural England’s advice, reflected in local planning policy but not law, means those hoping to build within 5 kilometres of certain special protection areas must jump through various additional hoops. But even then there is no outright ban. Not only has Gove exaggerated the nature of the UK’s rules; the detail comes from Britain not Brussels.
I'm not going to argue the toss here. All I will say is that life the Somerset flooding investigation, we find there is a morass of conflicting rules and regulations - some of them binding, others more advisory, with much confusion as to which holds supremacy, where there are government departments working to different agendas, often at odds with each other, often creating as many problems as they solve. In that we also find the Habitats directive is the cause of much confusion.

In this, I would happily leave the EU and suggest the directive be the first thing to go into the bin. There is a global convention on habitats which the UK has ratified and we would be better off without having the EU's own agenda impressed upon it. In this we need reform at all levels to bring about some clarity and a little bit more democracy. What we have seen is traditional husbandry of habitats is by far the best means of administration in that it places local knowledge at the centre of decision making.

In this we can have a national set of rules, with regional and sub-regional authorities with their own by-laws and we can dispense with EU interference altogether. We don't need a "single market" in wildlife habitats and we don't need a common approach and the very worst thing you can do in this regard is start introducing quotas for the creation of new habitats. The net result can often mean, through bureaucracy, the total destruction of exiting habitats.

It may be that the global convention need revising and if wildlife NGOs feel that is the case, then they can lobby our own government to go direct to the top table in this. We don't need the EU acting as a middleman and it will work better if we shorten the chain of accountability. 
EU rules dictate … the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres)

EU rules on olive oil marketing standards do impose a 5-litre limit for the containers olive oil is sold in. This is because, if olive oil is left around for too long, it risks going rancid. The rule is overkill. But what Gove doesn’t mention is that the EU allows countries to waive the 5-litre rule for those who might want or need to get their olive oil in greater containers, such as restaurants and hospitals. The UK decided not to. If Gove really thinks this is a big issue, he should be pushing our government, of which he is still a member, to change the rule.
This is what I call Bent Banana Histrionics - a most loathsome characteristic of dinosaur eurosceptics. Of all the things to go to the barricades with and Gove chooses marketing standards on olive oil? Planet, which, on?

But there's a broader point here. Without climbing into the nuts and bolts of the regulation, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that olive oil marketing standards are almost certain not EU in origin and this would be law that has been copied verbatim from the UN FOA/Codex.

In some instances it's the other way around where earlier EU regulations have been adopted by global standards bodies - but the point is, this is going to be an area increasingly administered by global organisations, whereby if we want to change the rules we will have to go to the very top table.

In this we are better off not joining the long queue to go through the EU middleman and raise our concerns directly. We can do that already but we can be summarily overruled if the EU chooses to assume exclusive competence. It's another area where the EU is becoming increasingly redundant - and where it holds dominance, it creates an exclusionary regulatory regime that ultimately harms developing nations.

In this though, the confusion of both InFacts and Gove is illustrative in that if I don't know, and Gove doesn't know and InFacts doesn't know, who does? Again there is no clear line of accountability and if a government minister doesn't know where to look then we have a problem don't we? (Notwithstanding Gove being an idiot). Since we are talking about the creation and reform of global trade rules, we are better off bypassing the EU in order to have a stronger voice in shaping single market rules. 

Conclusion

InFacts is going for low hanging fruit. To say that Gove is talking crap is a bit like saying the sea is blue. But what we see from InFacts is the classic europhile mantras that are still largely blind to the process of globalisation. InFacts have done a half decent job of establishing that Michael Gove is an intellectual lightweight and full time idiot who can't make a good case for leaving the EU, but I'm still not seeing a compelling case for staying in.

I am often accused of attacking my own side, but here we see there's nothing at all lost in saying Michael Gove is a bit of a douchebag, and just because InFacts agrees doesn't mean they're not a bunch of lightweights either. Your move.

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