In today’s speech on the European Union, previewed in this morning’s Times, Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, will make a surprising and telling point.
It is that many of the rules handed down to British businesses and consumers by Brussels have often (and increasingly) been in turn handed down to it by higher powers. This means, he argues, that we would have more influence outside the EU than within it. We could rejoin some top tables.
One example is the set of rules about food safety: additives, labelling, pesticide residues and so on. The food rules that Britain has to implement under the EU’s single market are now made by an organisation that sounds like either a Vatican secret society or a Linnean name for a tapeworm: Codex Alimentarius. Boringly, it’s actually a standard-setting commission, based in Rome.Codex is a creature of the United Nations. Its rules are in theory voluntary but since the EU turns Codex’s decisions into single-market law, and since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) judges disputes by Codex’s rules, Britain in effect is lumped with what Codex decides. But it’s Brussels that represents us on many of the key committees, so we have little chance to influence the rules in advance.
Codex has two sister organisations, which deal with animal and plant health. As environment secretary, Mr Paterson discovered on a visit to New Zealand just how powerless other countries perceive us to be. There was a particular new rule about a sheep disease that the New Zealand government wanted to persuade one of these bodies to amend. It had got Australia on side, and planned to enlist Canada and America, but when asked by Mr Paterson if Britain — Europe’s leading sheep producer — could help, the New Zealanders replied: no point, you’re just part of the EU. He felt stung by the implication of that remark.
In effect, if an organisation such as Codex changes its rules about food labels, Brussels is powerless to do anything other than follow suit. This goes much deeper than just a few veterinary and food issues. In 1994 the EU adopted the world trade system that required all signatories to adopt international standards in preference to their own.
Take another example. The rules followed by the banking industry when assessing asset risk are decided not by the EU but by a committee based in Switzerland. Then there’s the Financial Stability Board, chaired by Mark Carney and based in Paris. It’s a creature of the G20. It is supposed to set the standards for financial regulation worldwide.
Britain’s car industry is vital to our economy. Yet the single market standards of the EU for motor manufacturing are derived from regulations produced by (take a deep breath) the World Forum for the Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations, a subsidiary of the UN.
Ask yourself: is it likely that Britain, with its disproportionate interest in fish, car manufacturing, banking and sheep, will have seen these topics aired to our best advantage by some suave suit from Malta or Lithuania acting on behalf of the entire EU? Not a chance.
There’s plenty of other supranational bodies on which we are represented separately, and don’t need to leave the EU to join. There’s Nato, and the UNclimate change framework, whose chief (Christiana Figueres) says she wants to use it to achieve “centralised transformation” of the world economy if she can get a world treaty. So, to an increasing extent, the EU is just one of the spider’s webs in which we are entangled — but it’s often the only one that represents our interests.
At the weekend I looked up the latest review of the WTO’s Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (I’m a sad case, I know, but it was raining and there was not much on the telly) and, sure enough, it lists lots of comments it has received from countries such as New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, even Cuba. Not a single EU country is mentioned because of course our comments were relayed by the European Union.
In the past, “ministers had to travel to Brussels to make their case, and to keep an eye on new laws”, Mr Paterson will say in his speech, “but with the advance of globalisation we now need to be represented in Geneva, Paris, Berne, Rome and elsewhere.”
No wonder Eurosceptics (including Nigel Farage) say we have less international clout than Norway, which sits on all these committees. It plays a big role in the Codex Alimentarius, hosting a key committee about fish. Very few of these international rule-setting bodies are based in Britain. If we left the EU, we would at least get to be like Switzerland — a place favoured by UN agencies to base themselves. There’s jobs in polishing the shoes and limos of UN-crats.
This is good news for those Europhiles who sound so touchingly worried that they might lose the opportunities for racking up room-service bills while on business in Brussels. They can relax, and vote “out” in a referendum. The hotels in Switzerland are just as good.
And conversely, the supranational world is not an entirely comforting point for Eurosceptics to make. If we left the EU, we would not find ourselves in some sunlit meadow where we could make up any rules we wanted, as Ukip likes to imply. We would be still be just as subject to all these international standards and intrusions if we wanted to trade with other countries. And although we might get a bit more influence over rule-making in the areas that matter to us, we would still be regularly outvoted.
We are often told to fear leaving the EU because it would lead to “fax diplomacy”: learning about new laws without having had a chance to comment on them first. (The MEP Daniel Hannan has memorably expressed his puzzlement at the archaic way that Europhiles express themselves: who still uses fax?) But Brussels is also receiving such faxes. Leave the EU and we could be sending some of the faxes to Brussels ourselves. And perhaps even hosting a few of the fax machines.
More generally, the EU is increasingly a problem in the multilateral, supranational world. The inexorable drift towards co-ordinated world government is indeed happening, but the European Union is looking more like an oxbow lake, rather than the stream. Let’s get back in the main channel.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the The Times.