THE EUROPEAN UNION passes so many laws each year, admitted Junior Health Minister Alex White during the week, that our parliament couldn’t physically scrutinise them all, in even a perfect world.
That is, if you think about it, a very odd situation for a country to be in.
Not alone do Eurocrats create massive amounts of new regulation each and every year, without which the sky would presumably fall in; but we simply accept it as the law of the land by way of the flick of a ministerial pen with the barest of understanding outside the world of Dublin 2 mandarins.
All kinds of directives that make their way into local law
Brussels sends out all kinds of directives that make their way into local law. Some are indeed quite valuable: most folks on holidays abroad in the EU will have benefited from cuts to roaming charges in the common market for example. Some are not so useful, and smack more of a bureaucracy trying to make work for itself than delivering real and important value to citizens.
The EU has, in its wisdom, banned bananas that are too bendy and tried to ban diabetics from driving, though most countries wisely ignore this regulation. They, rather amusingly, have tried to ban water bottlers from boasting about the hydration benefits of drinking the stuff.
The EU is ever on the lookout for things to regulate, sending the government of Belgium a letter demanding explanation as to why it is considering a second runway at Charleroi airport without having consulted them first on the competition implications. It seems that nobody in EU HQ quite got the jovial tone of the 1 April newspaper article they included as reference to the project.
The ever-expanding bureaucracy
What we have in Europe is a classic example of a bureaucracy expanding in order to facilitate the needs of the expanding bureaucracy. The number of EU Commissioners and their accompanying portfolios and army of civil servants is determined by the number of members of the EU.
There has to be a commission post for each country, rather than there being any logical need for the number of ministries and their functions. When we add new members, we create a new commission post and it sets about creating new laws to keep itself busy.
The Eurocrats spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about consumer packaging. They made a change to the way that orange juice is labelled, from “partially made with concentrate” to “partially made from concentrate.” Sounds small, but the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reckoned that this one letter change cost £160,000 to implement, to say nothing of the costs incurred in Brussels to dream it up.
The cost of implementing EU regulation
The UK has been tracking the cost of implementing EU regulation for some years, something that Ireland does not do. We can, however, consider that many of the quangos we have in our employ exist for, and make good business from, enforcing EU regulations. Every regulation has to be parsed, information communicated about them and enforcement enacted. Somewhere along the way your tax money has paid for a public servant to examine the bendiness of a banana sold in Ireland.
A study of government data by the think tank Open Europe reckons that between 1998 and 2010, EU regulation has cost the UK economy £124 billion. Furthermore, they reckon that regulation that originates in Britain tends to be 2.5 times more cost effective than EU laws.
The reason for this is usually that local mitigating factors are better addressed by local government. Ham fisted ‘one size fits all’ laws for Europe tend to ignore conditions that already exist in a country or local mitigating factors.
The Lisbon Treaty
The idea of subsidiarity, laws being made by local governments, is something that, in theory, the EU takes for granted. It is enshrined in European treaty that “the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.”
Seeing that this wasn’t working, the Lisbon Treaty included a sop to local parliaments and committed Brussels to sending laws to the provinces for feedback. The theory is, in the press-release-friendly version, that local parliaments can examine EU laws, ask clarifying questions, make suggestions and even, if enough protest, block a law.
Sunset clauses are disappearing
In reality, the feedback is ignored. Not one single law has been checkmated or visibly altered by this process. The EU Commission itself has said that “it’s not easy to measure the concrete impact of national Parliaments’ opinions on a given final legislative act.”
In other words, the feedback doesn’t matter when we do get it; quite apart from the fact that we send out such a deluge of laws that they couldn’t possibly provide feedback on it all.
The nature of the laws has also been changing. Until the early 2000s, most EU laws had sunset clauses built in that meant they would come up for re-evaluation, or would just disappear, after a defined period of time. Nowadays only a very small percentage of EU laws aren’t permanent.
Will the UK exit the EU?
This lack of control and the one way street of EU regulation filtering down has famously irked the UK for a long time. There will most likely be a referendum on EU membership in the next few years. Polls show that while a slim majority are in favour of leaving the EU if the relationship remains the same, there is also a better than 50 per cent support for remaining in the union if there is a meaningful renegotiation of terms to live in a less suffocating embrace.
I would say that what the UK will argue for and may get will be a chance for the national parliament to red card EU legislative efforts. This will put an effective check on the deluge and may – simply by existing – stem the tide coming from European bureaucrats who, if they weren’t regulating something, would otherwise having nothing to do to justify their existence.
Over-regulation is burdensome to the economy and it is, in many instances, simply unnecessary. The sky is unlikely to fall in for lack of buttressing EU regulation on tungsten lightbulbs.
A good rule of thumb to start with in requesting the EU to pare down the amount of regulation it creates each year might be that we shouldn’t pass more laws than our legislature can physically examine.
Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.