UK should use competence review as a constructive exercise

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

With the first few chapters of the UK's balance of competences review published over the summer, there have already been accusations of bias from eurosceptics who fear that the initiative is tainted. But the work has been carried out thoroughly and if politicians engage constructively with its findings the review will represent a constructive opportunity, writes Michael Emerson.

Michael Emerson is senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). He has worked for the OECD in Paris and the European Commission, and as a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics.

In July the British government published its first set of six of a total programmed 32 reviews of the EU’s competences. While not yet therefore providing the whole picture these first reviews already point towards a fresh narrative that seems to emerge.

Among the reactions by politicians, John Redwood’s letter to The Times yesterday follows some other recent tabloid headlines in calling the exercise a ‘whitewash’, because the evidence that emerges did not support some common stereotypical opinions held on the euro-sceptic side of the fence.

The reports are doing what they were meant to do, to collect evidence-based assessments of how EU powers are being exercised. A review on this scale has never before been done by anyone in the EU, and it becomes a major source of new analysis for all. The British civil society sector and professional associations are to be commended for the work they did, rather than insulted by cheap ‘whitewash’ headlines.

The implications of the findings, if confirmed as the process continues, will be fundamental to a rational choice of UK strategy towards Europe. If the findings do not correspond to prior impression based on less adequate information, then this is something for honest politicians to take into account, and maybe revise their positions.

The first six reviews covered foreign and security policy, development policy and humanitarian aid, taxation, the single market, public health, and food safety and animal welfare.

Overall the balance of competences exercise seems so far to be heading in the direction of strategic conclusions to be drawn by the UK under three headings:

A) Competences where unanimity still prevails as decision making rule.

This is the case for foreign and security policy, and taxation, both reviewed in the first six. Here the member states are, to use the language of one review, ‘firmly in control’, so here there are no major competence questions at stake, only details of tendencies towards what the reviews call ‘competence creep’ (i.e. marginal increases of competence around fuzzy edges of legal definitions). The UK has been the most hard-line in efforts to avoid competence creep in the foreign policy area, sometimes in a minority of one. In the tax field there are some tendencies towards ‘enhanced cooperation’. This may open up further de facto opt-out options for the UK if it so prefers.

B) Competences where the UK has exercised legal opt-out provisions.

In the two major fields of the euro, and justice and home affairs including Schengen, the UK has already exercised its legal possibility to opt out, a unique concession granted to it, although not to newly acceding countries. So while these two fields have not yet been covered by the reviews, the basic situation is that there also is no open issue here for the UK, which already has these two opt-outs that it wants.

C) Competences governed by qualified majority voting.

This accounts for the bulk of other EU policies, principally the single market and sectoral policies that are part of a comprehensive single market concept or tangential to it, such as climate change policy. Here there are three first reviews now on the table. The single market case is assessed to be beneficial for all, and in need for further extension, albeit with much careful work needed to assure 'smart regulation'. This corresponds perfectly with the British government’s long-standing priority, and there is a consensus matter among economists and business leaders about the need for an open and well-regulated single market. In the two areas of food safety and public health the EU’s competences are judged by stakeholders to be 'about right', and the EU is often here seen to have been advancing progressive policies of the kind that the UK wants.

The overall strategic message for the UK debate over Europe shapes up: the UK has its perceived interests secure by way of unanimity governance or opt-outs in the major domains where it wants them, and for the rest which is largely a matter of the single market the policies are seen to be largely beneficial to the UK and the balance of competences are judged to be ‘about right’.

This still leaves open the case for much policy improvement or reform within the scope of present competences. Here the UK can make common cause with other member states, starting with the Netherlands which has published its own wish-list of 54 points warranting a lighter or finer regulatory touch. However to build up a drive for policy improvement it would be necessary to be clear that this was not part of a campaign to secure repatriation of policy competences, which other member states will not support, and which the stakeholders providing evidence to UK’s own competences review are also not supporting.

The question now for British political parties and the media is how to adapt discourses to these realities. It poses an issue first and foremost for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. A position of denial has for example been offered by another Conservative MP who described the results of these first reviews as evidence of a plot by the civil service to undermine the thrust of government policy. This is a completely disreputable position, given the high quality of the staff work done and the invaluable collection of expert evidence from informed stakeholders outside government.

Another position, hopefully the one that will emerge, is for all the political parties to take the competence review as a learning exercise, especially for those MPs who have not so far been much engaged in European affairs. It should also be a learning exercise for the British media, which have been responsible for delivering stereotypical and strategically misleading headlines about EU policies for decades.

As part of the learning exercise the reviews can also facilitate reflection on the cost-benefit ratio of the secession option, sector by sector. Exclusion from the single market is already being signalled as a negative for the UK as an investment location for foot-loose multinational investors. Secession would add no advantage for the UK in areas of competences where the UK already has its opt-outs. In the foreign and development policy domains, however, it would deprive the UK from having the EU as a ‘force multiplier’ (to use an expression found in the foreign policy review) for its interests. Secession would also mean a huge reputational downgrade of the UK in the eyes of the rest of Europe and major international actors. Maybe some deeply ingrained British traditions such as pragmatic common sense and fair play could come into play, as new information for MPs and journalists leads to revised political judgements. 

This opinion was first published on the web site of British Influence, a group campaigning for UK leadership in Europe

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