After immigration, one of the most common complaints about the UK’s membership of the EU is both the quantity and quality of the regulations which have been created. This opposition depends on at least one of the following to be true:
1. EU rules are imposed on the UK without the UK having any opportunity to take part in the decisions.
2. Regulation is itself inherently bad.
3. The regulations that emerge from the EU are ludicrous.
Now, the very fact that we have effective representation in the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament etc shows pretty directly that we are represented at exactly the level we should be and are able to take part in these decisions (despite some MEPs failing to participate in some of them). Also, as citizens, we are able to contact our MEPs in much the same way as our local MPs. So, we can quite simply reject the characterisation of EU regulation as something which is forced upon us without having any say in the matter.
The requirement for EU regulation is, primarily, to ensure uniformity across the EU. If there are one set of rules in France, another in Germany and another in Poland then it becomes a larger task for any one company to comply with all of them. This is in no way meant to be a claim that this is impossible, as companies do it when they deal with the rest of the world all the time, just that it is easier to deal with one set of regulations than with many. If part of the point of the EU is to promote regional economic cooperation and make trade easier (and of course the development of friendly relations which goes along with it) then it makes sense to set these regulations at an EU wide rather than local level. There are some people who would argue against any regulations at all, often people who promote the idea of laissez faire capitalism or anarcho-capitalism, I don’t really want to get into this here apart from to point out that an argument against regulation as inherently bad doesn’t really have anything to do with the EU and that the same argument can be made against the existence of government in general. So, if regulation is inherently bad then it is always bad and therefore should be abolished at all levels, not just at the EU level.
So, the final option, are the regulations themselves ludicrous? Well, that’s certainly the claim that’s often made. Whether it’s the old complaint about straight bananas or Michael Gove’s picking out the sentence which (perhaps wrongly) specifies the size of olive oil container while ignoring the next sentence specifying that the containers should have a seal which shows whether the container has been previously opened and the one after that specifying that the size limit doesn’t apply to collective establishments. Meaning that, although the regulation does mean that the supermarket can’t sell me more than 5 litres of olive oil in a single bottle, a restaurant, hospital or similar can buy it in whatever sized containers it likes (Article 2 of EU regulation 29/2012 here).
This sort of selective analysis seems to be used constantly to drum up anti-EU sentiment. No doubt someone will accuse me of doing the same thing from the other side. However, I’m not saying that all EU regulations are exactly right exactly as they are, rather I’m just pointing out that the examples used as anti-EU propaganda are frequently either not very good at best or outright dishonest at worst.
One of the worst examples that I’ve seen is this article “Britain’s farms would thrive outside of the EU”. In it the author, George Eustice, tries to manipulate us by telling the story of a farmer who was being denied a support payment from the EU on the grounds that he had missed the application deadline. He had missed the application deadline because he was dealing with the fact that his wife had just died. This is terribly sad of course, but the problem is that it’s not terribly relevant. There is a strong sense of irony in trying to use a case where an EU payment was being withheld (it wasn’t withheld in the end, everything was fine) to argue against membership of the EU. Leaving the EU would still leave this farmer with no support payment but, at least he wouldn’t have to worry about the application deadline!
The article makes complaining noises about a list of supposed EU regulations, “the precise dimensions of EU billboards and plaques that farmers are forced to put up by law; the maximum width of a gateway; the minimum width of a hedge; the maximum width of a hedge; what type of crop must be grown over the hedge; whether a cabbage and a cauliflower are different crops or should be deemed the same crop”. Outrageous! What are these EU nitwits doing debating whether cabbages and cauliflowers are the same thing? Is what we’re clearly meant to think.
Taken out of context, these do sound rather odd. However, the same is true for almost anything – certainly the idea that the government can lock anyone in a building for years at a time seems outright bizarre outside of the context of a system of judicial punishment.
The problem with complaining about these regulations is that, when taken in context, they actually make a great deal of sense.
Requiring something that’s being funded by another organisation to display that fact isn’t something that we complain about generally. In fact in all other situations it’s regarded as totally normal. Every professional football player in the country displays their team’s sponsor clearly on the fronts of their shirts. Why not require the same thing for other sorts of funding? It could be objected that it seems a little crude for a political organisation to insist on advertising itself on whatever it is involved with but this is an essential part of establishing its legitimacy. We know that our council tax is going to something useful because our waste gets collected. Most people just don’t have the same level of everyday contact with the EU. The more obvious they make it that EU money is going towards supporting local projects the more obvious it is that there are benefits to EU membership. If the population can see these benefits then it can go a long way to ensuring that they value that membership according to what it actually involves.
So much for complaining about billboards, but what about the rules about the dimensions of hedges and whether cabbages and cauliflowers are the same thing?
Both of these are to do with promoting the EU’s environmental goals (surely even the most aggressive opponent of the EU has to admit that protecting the environment is a worthwhile goal). The minimum size a hedge needs to be isn’t simply a measurement for its own sake, it’s a minimum size that it needs to be in order to qualify as a EFA (ecological focus area). In the same way, nobody is asking whether cabbages and cauliflowers are the same thing. The only question is whether they are different enough to count as different from the perspective of crop diversification. The only reason for having these rules in the first place is to determine the size of a farmer’s support payment.
What all this means is that nobody is going to tell a farmer that his hedge is too long or insist that cabbages and cauliflowers are the same thing. Instead, people might tell him that his hedge isn’t long enough to qualify for an additional EFA payment. Of course, if a farmer knowingly tried to claim additional money for a hedge which wasn’t large enough to qualify for a payment then this is quite simply fraud. These are the reasons for EU farm inspections. Not for anyone to say “sorry, you’re not allowed to have that hedge unless you make it ten metres longer” or anything of that nature.
In short, without arguing against the existence of government entirely there just doesn’t seem to be any case being made that making regulations at the EU level is a bad thing. If anything it will tend to promote cooperation by making it easier for businesses in each of the states to deal with each other. It’s time to stop making daft complaints in order to sell newspapers.
Deliberately misrepresenting topics in this way is undermining both democracy and the potential for international cooperation by obscuring the facts that citizens need in order to engage with political issues effectively.