Monday, 8 February 2016

Brexit environment fears are unfounded

Yes. They're quite wrong.

I am reputed to be quite hostile to various politicians and hacks. As a species, they are in transmit mode only and there is little value in toadying up to them expecting a dialogue as you're only acknowledged if you are appropriately genuflecting. In this I find myself crossing swords with my "own side" rather more often than those with whom I profoundly disagree. 

If I write a blog post addressing a point made by a journalist, it is not a hostile act, it is an invitation to enter dialogue. In this, as much as I am going to fundamentally disagree with Samuel Lowe, he has taken the time to respond to my earlier post which is to be both commended and respected, unlike the odious Fraser Nelson who merely wafts in to reassert his worthless opinions.

Being it a long contribution, I advise you to read the comment in full as I am going to separate out the points accordingly for the sake of keeping this post as concise as it possibly can be. Let's get started.
1. I think that you misunderstood the tone of my preamble. The 'bonfires of red tape' are not something I expect to happen in practice, but do provide insight into the approach preferred by many (not all) of those hankering for Brexit. Of course they wouldn't be able to get everything their own way - but it is v possible to make the argument that, in regards to the environment, it could go in a direction that is regressive in regards to the current status quo post-Brexit. The risk is real.
Democracy does carry inherent risks, yes. However, risk is only the likelihood of a hazard occurring. And so it becomes a matter of risk assessment. My own view is that risk should not be a factor in that there is no threshold of risk that can possibly justify removing ultimate authority from the people, but let's entertain the notion that I'm wrong for a moment.

No doubt, Mr Lowe (Sam) has seen today's Guardian, in which Jacek Rostowski, economist and former finance minister of Poland sets out his rather frank views on Brexit. He argues that the Brexit camp is "selling a Pollyanna vision that will never exist".

He observes that their argument is based on a fictional agreement that would permit the UK to opt out of the free movement of people, end EU budget contributions, extend regulatory opt-outs and allow access to Europe’s single market. He adds:
For most European observers and officials this just won’t happen. No country has full access to the single market without making a contribution to the EU budget and accepting the four freedoms – and no such exception would be made for Britain. Campaigners assume that on Britain leaving, the EU’s remaining 27 members would be intent on helping. This is paradoxical given that the same people campaign to leave on the basis of these states’ unwillingness to accede to British demands for reform.
That is of course, nothing this blog has not been trying to beat into certain key players within the Brexit camp to no avail thus far, with John Redwood being one of the very worst offenders. If by some miracle these bozos do manage to win the referendum, they are going to be both surprised and sorely disappointed by what they will achieve with it.

In fact, when faced with the task of taking us out of the EU, our own civil servants will not be seeking to make work for themselves and will be looking to use as many existing legal instruments as possible. If not actually the Norway Option then something even closer to EU membership. The kippers are going to hate it.

And so we're not really talking about an environmental cataclysm here - and in the time it takes to further evolve our way out of the EU, we will have seen a great deal more integration at the global level. I am sure Mr Lowe noticed today the new global UN standard on aircraft engine emissions.

Put simply, we won't be seeing any major deviation from the global norms any time soon and Britain does not have a record of not ratifying global conventions, and seldom lodges any reservations. Those conventions still stand even if we quit the EU. Mr Lowe can say there is a risk that we may press for certain opt outs in future revisions, but the risks are marginal, and he is in no better position than I to say what those will be or whether they have any impact worth losing sleep over. Democracy has risks. So what? Moving on:
2. If you read again, I don't actually play the fax democracy card, which I also think is too simplistic. I do however think it is fair to say that we would have to accept "many" of the rules and accept a "much reduced ability to shape and steer them." ." As to me saying "Under this scenario, the UK would still have to implement all of the changes in EU legislation that derive from TTIP." Well, yes. I was referring specifically to changes in EU legislation that derive specifically from TTIP. As you acknowledge, TTIP is predominantly about removing regulatory differences, IF [big if] this succeeds it would fundamentally change aspects of the single market, for better or worse. Regardless of whether the UK 'opts in' to TTIP (which I near guarantee it would), EEA/EFTA states would be affected.
Sam doesn't actually pull the "fax democracy" stunt, but he might as well for he places no caveats to indicate the process is more nuanced. And again, if Mr Lowe wants to read the EEA agreement, Efta states do have a veto, they have right of reservation on the constituent parts and will already have been consulted at the global level on those agreements that make up TTIP. That Norway is not specifically involved in the negotiations is neither here nor there. It isn't involved in trade talks between Russia and Kazakhstan either, but nobody is complaining about that.

The point being that Lowe's central argument is wrong. We would enjoy less bureaucratic access to the bodies that make up the substance of TTIP, we would have our own free vote and we would have a veto through the Efta agreement. In that regard, there are more stages through which to raise a red flag than there are as an EU member, where our last line of defence (with caveats) is MEPs where we are structurally outnumbered. So the notion that EU membership enhances our protection from TTIP (or involvement in) is bogus. Carrying on:
3. From previous discussions, I know you don't like the idea that the EU made us clean up our environment, historically. I would agree, it didn't make us per se, it happened as a result of us working together. It is however accurate to say that EU membership gave us a boot up the arse, as acknowledged by pretty much every academic/government/NGO study I have ever encountered. The most comprehensive assessment of the evidence I know - the investigation in the previous government's Review of the Balance of Competences (referenced by you in one of your previous posts -, concluded that:

"The evidence showed that a large number of organisations representing all sectors considered that it is in the UK’s national interest for the EU to have a degree of competence in the broad areas of environment and climate change because of the advantages that this brings for the Single Market and environmental protection."

Why is this the case? I would argue that the combination of environment and single market (and subsequent enforcement) has allowed states, such as the UK to pursue higher environmental standards without the fear of being 'undercut' by lower protection jurisdictions. The single market acted as a trampoline, of sorts.

Yes, the EU isn't perfect - I have spent quite a long time criticising them for one issue or the other. And yes, your favourite example of the IMO is particularly problematic in regards to confusion around EU competence, but sometimes you have to step back and look at these things in the round. And on this, the evidence is unequivocal: The EU has on balance been good for the UK's environment in the past, and it continues to make sense to work as part of the EU to address the issues of the future.
We are talking past tense here. I really don't deny that EU rules have been the basis on which a good deal of progress was made in the eighties and nineties, but the impetus is not solely from Brussels. After all, we have seen instances where member states haven't lifted a finger, as you well know. It's only in recent years has any pressure been applied to Greece to clean up its filthy shipping industry.

So I really rather dispute the notion that Britain is a reluctant environmentalist. You may also note, that the quote refers to "the single market", which again makes it something of a moot point since leaving the single market is hugely unlikely.

As to whether the EU has been unequivocally good for the environment, to say "on balance" and "in the round", is very much equivocating. To say on balance it has been good is all very well, but what is the margin here when we consider the moral balance - that of pollution displacement (exporting it abroad) and also when you consider driving species of fish to the brink of extinction? In that regard, "On balance" my car is a good car. It gets me from A to B most of the time, and it has most modern conveniences you would expect from a car - but it's still a Vauxhall.

And then we get to the crux of this. To say "it continues to make sense to work as part of the EU to address the issues of the future" - well I would categorically argue that it doesn't. First of all, Brexit does not mean the end of cooperation with the EU, and in my view, on balance, enhances it, and it doesn't mean we necessarily would take up a position counter to the EU at the global top tables.

This debate really is about the future and the direction of travel for law-making. As we have already discussed, the direction of travel is ever more globalisation. Brexit is about re-evaluating how we interact with the global nexus of law-making, and in so doing, we find that the EU is no longer fit for purpose and itself has not fully recognised the significance of the globalisation process. We will explore that next. I'll break point four into three pieces. 
4. As to your core argument, that standards are now being made at the global stage and the EU is but a relic of the past. I fear that you have identified an interesting trend, when it comes to standard setting bodies, but extrapolated too far in your argument. The idea that globalisation and world integration is speeding up is not backed up by the evidence ( The WTO has been stalled for years, and instead we seem to be entering the age of mega-regionals such as TPP. I am making no judgement calls here, I am simply describing.
There are two fallacies here. Primarily regionalism. This is not quite attuned to what's really going on. The establishment of regional blocs is a sort of me-tooism, but they are not anything close to what the EU is in essence or substance - with the EU being very much a supranational entity with (largely thwarted) statehood ambitions. Other blocs are much closer to Efta, with member states having a great deal more freedom than EU members.

They are of diminishing relevance on the international scene because blocs tend to be moving more along the lines of coalitions of non-state actors, comprising of corporates, NGOs and super regulators, working inside the WTO/TFA framework. In this they find non-regional coalitions equal in size and potency. Their agenda now is wholly different.

Tariffs are far less the issue now and the real driver of trade is removal of technical barriers to trade. In this, agreements between standards bodies and regulators are far more significant and seismic than interregional bloc agreements, which take years to accomplish. TTIP for instance, could be said to have stalled.

The point being that you don't need to be part of a trade bloc to fully participate in ad-hoc coalitions, and there are only limited advantages in having entire blocs negotiating on matters of specialist concern. Most other nations have the choice of either utilising regional blocs or having their own freedoms. Only one bloc restricts such freedom. The EU.

The original WTO agenda may have stalled but the framework is central to a newly energised global effort that this blog and LeaveHQ has taken a keen interest in under the aegis of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, where incremental changes have far wider ramifications for trade than anything the EU is cooking up.

Similarly, the drive toward a digital single market is largely adopting global practices. This very recent piece shines a torch on a sample of this kind of activity where agreements and MOUs are lodged with the WTO as a sort of registrar. Put simply, Mr Lowe, your understanding of trade issues is about ten years out of date. Moving on:
When it comes to standard creation we need to take a step back and ask why are standards created. Firstly, to make things more convenient for business. Hence, in a still globalised world ('hyper globalisation may be off the table for now, globalisation itself certainly isn't) it makes sense for them to come together and iron out any differences before a product is made, or to implement transnational phases to bring everything into line.

This is one reason. But I would argue the second is more disruptive, which is in response to regulatory change. If a government demands that appliances must become more efficient by date x, the companies operating in that jurisdiction have to do it. And the standards bodies have to play catch up. In this scenario, the biggest markets have the biggest say. So we're talking the US and ... yes, the EU.

For example the EU will soon be implementing a 'Circular Economy package', which will push governments to hit higher recycling targets as well as reduce raw materials consumed in the first place. This will lead to future legislation around things like eco-design that standards bodies will be forced to engage with. Again, the biggest markets create the policy space. And let's not kid ourselves, the EU is one of the biggest markets. (As acknowledged in this post by Richard North, btw)
This is where the arguments get murderously complex and are worthy of a more thorough discussion in themselves. Much is changing in the wake of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement where older conventions are gradually being updated and exported, opening up whole new markets in the process. And in bringing new markets on-stream into the sphere of global conventions, the spheres of power are morphing and merging at an uncharted pace.

This is actually spawning trading innovations whereby the need for harmonisation becomes clear, which has corporates demanding it, coming together and forming their own, and in many respects are demanding of governments that they catch up in embodying standards into law. The days when governments were driving standards are numbered.

The push for a standardised system of container weighing has been established through SOLAS via the IMO, where the EU and nation states are lagging behind in adopting implementing it, much to the frustration of shippers. At some point I will have to do a long post on it because it reveals an entirely new dynamic.

In a lot of respects industry no longer required beating up to comply with regulation. They have seen its value for the purposes of efficiency and profitability and also the competitive advantages it can bring. As I noted in the original post, Maersk even loves the strict emission limits as a means to contract the market. In this, corporates are looking more and more to the global regulators and pressing them for ever more cooperation agreements with foreign regulator, some of whom are wholly private.

In this we see an increasing involvement of philanthropic entities, super-NGO's (often EU funded), UN bodies, trade guilds and the rest, all seeing the advantage in lodging their agendas there, over and above the EU in anticipation of government action.

This notion that the EU and the US being giants in the sandbox, slugging it out might well speak to the current dynamic, but is says nothing of the future. The path of evolution suggests increasing EU redundancy. Multilateralism works quite well and the value of the EUs hegemony is entirely in the eye of the beholder - and it is always context specific.

What we see is that government is actually becoming less necessary in some regards, and is only really required in those instances, where the externalities of trade have negative environmental and social effects. In that we are increasingly finding that regional problems are global problems that require integrated global solutions lest there be displacement of pollution and social ills. In this, the large environmental NGOs have all the say they want - and have a good deal of input into the regulations at the top level.

It becomes quite sinister then that FoE Europe is paid EU funds to lobby the EU to use its supremacy to force a common position on measures mooted by the NGOs at the top level. FoE might like it, but it ain't democratic - especially when the EU has less than an honest agenda, often using environmentalism as a Trojan Horse for greater integration. Not always does it result in necessary or desirable regulations, and can be environmentally destructive without clear lines of accountability. 
But what about when two big, developed markets clash? Take the US and EU. Both have an entirely different way of regulating certain elements of the economy, be it financial services or cosmetics. For example, the US only bans 11 chemicals from use in cosmetics, while the EU bans 1328. It means that, on these kind of issues, that regulatory harmonisation, or the setting of 'one standard' becomes near impossible. There will never be a global standard, at least not in the foreseeable future. And let's be clear, yet again, it is big markets like the EU and US that will continue to dictate the global policy discussion on these issues for years to come.

(As a slight aside, I would also note that this can have a positive impact. Chinese chemical companies are starting to adopt the strict REACH EU chemical standards, and many of the approaches are making their way into Chinese law.) In conclusion, International Standards Bodies matter, and should be engaged with. But, for better or worse, the policy environment will continue to be shaped by the biggest markets - and if I'm honest I can't see that changing anytime soon.
This one is a slam dunker. Mr Lowe doesn't see this changing any time soon. I do. Because it has - and will continue to evolve toward a global standard. There are some areas where there is never likely to be an exact standard, not least with things like medical equipment and treatment codes but there will be an ongoing continuous effort between the standards bodies, who again have several agreements lodged with the WTO that register mutual recognition.

In this the major one is the Vienna Agreement (1991) that sees a hierarchy of standards where European standards are subordinate to the global standard. What that means is that anything that meets the global standard cannot be refused on the basis of EU objections so long as there are recognised inspection systems in place.

Looking at the given example, we find that the REACH Directive simply embodies ISO/IEC standards - and those are what China is adopting. There is a whole strata of politics there that bypasses the EU entirely. Again these are agreements between non-state actors. I could write at length on this, but as I already have I'm not going to go over old ground.

The point being that the EU is of diminishing significance, things have already overtake the EU and the US, with growing input from the rest of the world, where one's influence is largely dependent on the expertise committed and the international good will rather than size of market.

In this, the EU is often seen as more a nuisance and a hindrance that a driver. Again I am going to say that Mr Lowe is at least ten years behind the curve - and while he very clearly does have a more developed idea of how things work than most, he's only scratching the surface of what sits over and above the EU.  
5. I suppose then your argument could be that if the UK were to leave it could form new alliances and challenge this global hegemony. This is where it entirely comes down to speculation - let's just say I don't see it happening. We would remain in the shadow of the EU, and bound to much of its legislation (not all, I know - for eg the birds and habitats directives are not part of the EEA!) and I don't see the rest of the world being particularly enamoured by the political wisdom of a partner that seemingly cut off its nose to spite its face. (Which is how it appears to those looking in.) But, there is no right or wrong on this one, we'd simply have to wait and see how it played out.
There is every reason to believe we would join ad-hoc alliances quite simply because, for starters, we would be in Efta and members of several alliances by default, and secondly there is not other way to do it. Alliances is how it works. In most respects I agree that we would remain in the shadow of the EU, cooperating with the EU, largely because it is in our interests.

The point being we would have the choice not to when it suited us. And that is largely the whole point. There are those circumstances where a reservation, veto or opt out gives our industries the competitive advantages they need that could not otherwise be secured by adopting EU measures.

I am under no illusions that Brexit means full sovereignty nor do I believe we can always escape the gravitational pull of the EU, but being outside of it gives us a certain trading agility and a direct line to the top tables.
6. Democracy. We are never going to agree on this. I think the EU has its problems, but I don't feel it is anywhere near as undemocratic as you make out. As I said, we are never going to agree on this.
On this matter, there are two types of people. People who really understand what democracy is, and those who really don't. There is not even a grey area here. Democracy means "people power". The word democracy stems from the Greek word, dēmokratía, comprising two parts: dêmos "people" and kratos "power". Without a demos, there is no democracy. But people without power is not democracy either.

In this there is no legitimate EU demos. The integration by stealth modus operandi means it has never put the proposition of a supreme government of Europe to the ultimate test. ie an honest referendum. Even now, the discussion is bogged down in trade figures and endless waffle about arcane matters of law, largely conflating the EU with the single market, dressing it up as a trade bloc. But there is no "single social market" not are we especially bound by a common history or culture. It is entirely an artificial demos.

As to whether the people have power, well, when you cannot sack the executive, you can only have a partial electorally mandated reshuffle of the cabinet and you can only change a fraction of the MEPs, then not by any measure could you consider the EU a democracy even if representative democracy were even democracy.

And then when you consider that half a billion people are "represented" by fewer than a thousand MEPs, where at ever level the EU can overrule the governments of entire nations, you;'e just not in the democracy ballpark. You're not even in the car park or the approaching causeway. As a matter of irrefutable fact, people are not empowered for change at the EU level.

The fact that it is broadly a liberal social entity and not a despotic, murderous malign regime doesn't make it a democracy. It is benign managerialism, that has in most respects murdered real politics. And when you remove the politics, all you have is administration, so the LunaKip notion that we are run by a legion of faceless bureaucrats is actually smack on the money.

The bitch of it for us Leavers is that as far as most people are concerned, it works quite well most of the time. Except for when you find you're at the sharp end of when it doesn't work, and then you find there's absolutely nothing you can do about it with no means of veto, opt out or registered exception.

One could not expect an MEP to affect change in the same way an MP once could. And that is why, no matter the marginal risk there may be to the environment from leaving the EU (slight in my opinion), there is no basis to remain, and we had no business joining in the first place.

Conclusion: Nobody is going to deny the influence of the EU. It does bring us some benefits - bit none that we could not enjoy form outside. It is powerful. But it isn't the be all and end all.

The world is changing and power is re-ordering. Looking at the above debate we see it is of labyrinthine complexity and while Samuel Lowe doesn't have a picture of how it all works, I am happy to admit that I don't either. We are not even scratching the surface here.

What I am convinced of though is the gradual redundancy of the EU in ways that we haven't even begun to comprehend, and that it is a layer of government that nobody really asked for, that increasingly frustrates the process of globalisation rather than enhancing it to our advantage. I believe the structure of it means it never can, and certainly not democratically.

Too many decisions over far too many people are made arbitrarily for ideological rather than practical reasons. Because of that power it is open to the abuse by vanities without the necessary checks and balances that national governments are better able to provide.

 I'm not going to downplay the importance of environmental issues, nor am I going to denounce the need for regulation, but it seems apparent to me that the EU is not where the party is at, and as a modern global leader in environmental ideas and technologies we need to be taking a full role in the lead organisations without being muted and stifled by the EU. Mr Lowe in my view should be rather keen on that idea.

Our environment is important, but so is our democracy. In some regards, democracy and localism is the safeguard to unwelcome environmental incursions, and the floods in Somerset show that local knowledge manages better than diktats and damaging quotas from above. In environmental husbandry, farming and hydrology, one size does not fit all and the uniqueness of our landscapes requires that we must have ultimate sovereignty over them. EU subsidiarity is not enough and the devastation it has wreaked on our fisheries is just cause enough to want to end EU control over them.

Moreover, Samuel Lowe's lack of familiarity with with shenanigans over and above the EU largely confirm what I have thought from the beginning, in that the EU obscures that universe from view. In this we see corporates and NGOs acting on their own behalf with little in the way of scrutiny or oversight, largely accountable to no-one, and in desperate need of reform.

Through their associations with the UN, the NGOs are effectively dictating the global agenda and easily matching coalitions of business interests in terms of influence, while nations are bogged down at sub-regional level. If the UK broke away from the EU and took more part in the activities of global and regional bodies, it might realise how much the NGOs are shaping regulation. Perhaps that is why FoE doesn't want us leaving the EU?

In this, I believe FoE has a corporate agenda of its own, and the national branches are largely astroturf sock puppets, and so really when they have no interest in democracy and are not immediately loyal to our local environment, we should be suspicious of FoE, being mindful of the fact that who governs us is largely none of their business.

NGO's should be lobbying governments, not advocating them. If they are prepared to interfere in these matters, then they should no longer be viewed as benign. They are partisan political activists with an agenda for power. An agenda where democracy is more an obstacle than something to be treasured and preciously guarded.

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