Saturday, 24 October 2015

Embrace diversity - Leave the EU

As promised, this post is a bit of an explainer. It is important that we have our facts right and I thought it was time to clarify a few things. It probably won't clarify anything except for the one point we make repeatedly. It is complex and messy and very easy to get it wrong.

A lot of Brixiteers have the wrong end of the stick when they say Britain has no vote at the WTO. It does. The European Commission negotiates on behalf of the 28 countries of the EU as a single entity and then compels member states to vote for the common EU position.

So then there's the question of how come Cameron has been signing trade deals with China when trade is an exclusive competence of the EU. Well, the short version is Cameron is signing trade deals, not trade agreements. We can make all the deals we like so long as they are inside the parameters defined by the agreements the EU makes on our behalf. Where imports are concerned, we can agree to import something only so long as the EU has agreed that Chinese production standards are recognised.

Eurosceptics carelessly state that outside the EU we'll be free to make trade deals with the rest of the world. It's a hackneyed piece of rhetoric that is not nearly precise enough. What independence means is that we will be able to freely negotiate the terms of trade and will have an independent veto at the WTO.

That said there are distinctions between a veto and a reservation, where Norway might well agree to a measure, conditional on certain opt outs, A measure can go forward but certain aspects will not apply to Norway. Britain has no such right of reservation.

Under these conditions Norway has been able to apply the reservation on trade agreements that all health sector personnel must speak Norwegian. The actual text has it as "Health personnel must speak Norwegian and have passed an examination in certain national topics. Course and examinations are held in the Norwegian language. Foreign examinations giving equivalent competence may be recognised. There are specific conditions relating to the approval of authorised health personnel as specialists within a limited area in the field of health. Information in patient records must as a main rule be written in Norwegian language."

This is not to say that the UK could not secure likewise but would have to go via the EU to achieve it rather than dealing direct. I can't actually say for certain if the UK does have the same opt outs and would welcome reader input on that score, but it's actually besides the point. Here we have a WTO agreement where Norway deals direct and clearly does get what it wants. 

And this is largely the point of Brexit, to have a fairer, faster and more democratic system of world trade rather than having to go through a middleman every single time. And when you're dealing direct, there is a shortened chain of accountability. Large blocs mean the compromises for expediency are often too great, and too much happens without public scrutiny or democratic oversight. 

One such example is the push for common sugar levels in soft drinks - a push headed by the BEUC, a super lobby group made up of NGOs and national lobby groups (instead of governments) from every EEA nation, including Norway. It is this body that submits recommendations and evidence to the WHO, who in turn form global conventions resulting in EU directives or regulation invoking Codex standards. When this comes to fruition, the only time our media will mention it is when it has already been implemented. Much of the process is completely obscured from view.

In reality the europhile claim that Norway has no voting powers on those regulations is really neither here nor there. It is in at the top helping to write the regulations - or at least Norwegian NGOs are. It can use its own powers of "veto" at the debate stage before any recommendations get as far as the WHO let alone the EU. Norway is involved at the WHO level and so it has influence there too.

What's problematic for us is that Europhiles often demand examples of where Norway has used a veto. If only it were that simple. In most cases, things don't even get as far as an official vote if there is a dispute, so if you want to find examples of Norway wielding its influence you have to dig right into the bowels of meetings concerning the most obscure and diverse subjects. The same is true of Britain. In our case, we are represented by "Which?" - who work closely with our own Department of Health.

This dynamic is also true of automotive standards within UNECE, which is a consultative process involving Norway, where again, it's not quite as simple as convening for a vote. Europhiles imagine the process to be much like the EU parliament where drongos sit there pressing buttons all day. That's why simplistic tweets can end up causing headaches. This is a field that requires a certain level of knowledge and a great deal of precision.

To say that we would have a vote at the top table is a nice piece of rhetoric, but how it works depends on which top table, which lobby group, which committee and on what subject. I could spend the entire referendum campaign trying to map the nexus of them, many of them overlapping and still not have moved out of the confines of one single industry. 

So what's the take home point from all this? Quite clearly we see that the EU is not the top table and in fact to have real influence, you need to be fully engaged in all of the respective global forums, some which span well outside just EEA countries, where non-EU states can forge alliances, sometimes following the EU's lead, but at other times moving to block the EU. It is highly fluid and the EU adds another layer of bureaucracy and delay.

The fly in the ointment for us is at the lobby group level. While the EU definitely does want to replace the member states at the UN/WTO level, it does not as yet have an interest in replacing member states or national NGOs from the consultation process - so in fact if we have bad, nannying and invasive regulation it's because we have bad nannying and invasive NGO's, not funded by the EU, but by our own government - or even worse... you, unwittingly.

The likes of Cancer Research can often be found submitting evidence to the WHO with regard to e-cig regulations. Unless you have a particular eye on such charities and NGO's and their position, you have no idea what is being done on your behalf. The obvious question here being to whom are they accountable - and the answer is nobody. To get better regulation there is a great need to reform the consultation process and put NGOs under greater scrutiny.

That begs the question as to whether it would be much different outside of the EU, and I would have to say probably not - or only marginally. Certainly democratising the process of global regulation is ambitious to say the least. So if it makes so little difference, why bother leaving the EU?

Well, turn it around. Why bother having the EU since all it does is delay the process and muddy the waters? The EU will take its lead from its own lobby groups, some of them EU funded, in order to arrive at the common EU position. If a coalition of NGO's and the WHO decide upon a convention that we will always adopt as law, why not do that via a global system that allows us to register reservations? Even our own NGOs have a fairly good idea where the red line is as our representatives are still children of their background. 

The effect of the EU on this process, by removing the right of reservation, is to create that European internal market, stripping away all those niggly little national exceptions, and while that's great in theory, in practice it eradicates all those idiosyncrasies that define our distinct identities, eventually creating a dismal monoculture, but also threatening things like patient safety and road safety - as there are clear cultural differences where convergence has to evolve rather than through force of regulation. 

There will always be strong arguments for regulatory convergence. Why wouldn't we want a European or global standard on labelling of medicine bottles? But these are real world practical examples. Where it gets dangerous is when areas of law are subject to the EU's ideology of creating a single state and a single European demos, where the ends justify the means. That will necessarily mean that reservations demanded for the sake of safety or preservation of valued cultural differences will take second place to the theoretical dream of a European monoculture.

It ignores the basic nuances that because we drive on the left and have narrower roads things will necessarily be different, and what works for most of Europe with its wide boulevards will not work for Shepton Mallet or Ripon. This is how we ended up with much larger lorries than our roads can cope with. We have lower bridges, narrow winding roads - and all of these things make up our heritage and our rural character. Gradually, our distinctiveness will be eroded.

At this point in the post it sounds like I'm about to break into a chorus of Land of Hope and Glory, but actually, identity and culture are still critical to tourism and agriculture is an adjunct to that. Certainly without WTO reservations, Norway wouldn't have agriculture to speak of. And certainly the long stretches of flat and open land in Eastern Europe cannot be regulated in the same way as Cumbria or the Somerset Levels. The flooding of 2014 are a clear example of what happens when remote regulation takes precedence over local knowledge.

Without a means of securing opt outs and reservations we only ever have legal absolutism - a system which all but exterminated small slaughterhouses in the 1990's. All very good for the giant corporates, but not so good for the small producers. When you see a label that says Lincolnshire sausages that no longer means you're buying sausages from Lincolnshire per se. It just means there's a massive rendering plant in Lincolnshire, probably owned by Americans churning out identikit processed foods by the tonne every day. All of our distinctions matter to us and who we are and they are essential to quality of life. 

Admittedly as the pace of globalisation speeds up and populations grow, necessitating larger and faster food production, some traditions will become extinct and progress will erase distinctions, but if we are going to have that global single market, it should be one geared to facilitate faster and better trade where everybody has a voice, and not driven by the paranoid zealotry of those who think Europe should be cleansed of its many identities in order to escape war. As an idea, it's toxic as much as it's complete bollocks. The only reason the EU has lasted this long is because it has successfully deceived its peoples that it is a trade bloc and little more. 

As much as it sounds like lofty and whimsical rhetoric to say we need to go global and we need to embrace globalisation, we actually do need to be thinking about how we can dispense with  the ideas of the last century and open up these global forums so that everybody is speaking on equal terms instead of forming gigantic bullying blocs who compete with each other, Reducing technical regulatory decisions to just a handful of remote powers is actually pretty terrifying.  

Do we really want a single entity making decisions for nearly half a billion people? Is that what we're calling democracy these days? If millions of people can have their landscapes and cultures threatened and even erased because several million more who live thousands of miles away say they must then to me that sounds more like the tyranny of the majority.  

We do not want every last detail of our lives reduced to a decision of bland managerialism. Without our distinctiveness, we are nothing as a species. For an institution that has been ramming diversity down our throats to the point of making it a thought crime to believe otherwise, it seems curiously committed to exterminating all those things that make us diverse. 

I want to keep a Europe where the French smell of garlic and make ponderous cars. I want to keep a Germany that makes bonkers techno and cars for arseholes. I want to keep an Italy that makes disgusting cheeses and bad pop music. I want to keep the Spain that makes awesome lagers and fish pies. I want to keep the Poland that does whatever Poland does so that one day I can go there and find out. I do not want a European monoculture and I think Europe will always be safer if Britain is allowed to be Britain. It's time to start trusting people and celebrating our nations rather than abolishing them. A Europe stripped of its distinctiveness and its democracy is a Europe that most certainly will go to war.   

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