Category Archives: EU

RIP the Thatcher Legacy

Once upon a time, I wrote a few thoughts on Mrs Thatcher’s death.  Today it’s time to bid farewell to her legacy.  Stuttley has declared its destruction now to be not merely his agenda, but  a fundamental priority.

Of course, that’s not how he puts it.  He says we shall not be bound by EU rules.  Which sounds on the face of it entirely reasonable.  I’m inclined to believe he (mostly) means it when he assures the world he doesn’t intend a race to the bottom: insofar as he wants that, EU membership has not really held him back.  After all, we have exemptions from EU directives and programmes we haven’t signed up to.

The issue with those EU rules is that they are exactly what makes the Single Market, Mrs Thatcher’s greatest project and most important legacy.  For it was she more than anyone who persuaded governments and people around Europe to create a Single Market, and indeed it was she – or rather her civil servants – who wrote many (maybe even most) of the rules we’re now rejecting.

With Blair/Brown having abandoned monetarism and let credit rip, and recent governments looking back to 1970s socialism such as bailouts for lame ducks from banks to Flybe, her domestic legacy was already largely gone.  Now it’s her greatest achievement, red-tape-free trade throughout the world’s greatest market.  Ironic indeed that remaining beneficiaries will be countries she worked so hard to persuade!

If you’d told me in the 1980s that Attlee’s achievements would outlive Thatcher’s, I suspect I’d have been quite seriously incredulous.  How things change!

p.s. Does anyone else see Stuttley’s “Canada-style agreement” as laying the ground for blaming the EU?  He’ll very publicly make demands that are not a problem for Canada but utterly incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement, then loudly condemn the EU for refusing them.


“Michel Barnier has said Britain would get a better brexit deal if he were negotiating with himself”

— attributed to comedian Henning Wehn.

The sad thing is, the quip is probably true!  The real problems lie not between the UK and EU, nor even between political parties here, but within the governing Tory party.

I’ve been meaning to write most of this post – less the above joke – for a long time.  I think since last December, when they announced the ‘backstop’ agreement to the Irish border issue.  An agreement that was never going to be acceptable to the hardliners, and looked set up as vehicle for pushing blame onto the EU when the UK started to mess with it.  But if so, that looks to be failing, as it seems the hardliners eschew such a “double-cross them later” fudge and reject it now.

So what is standing in the way of an agreement?  At the core of it are two red lines:

EU red line: the integrity of the rules and regulations that protect our people and other things we care about.
Brexiteer red line: we must not be bound by EU rules: they stand in the way of trade agreements.

OK, that’s a bit abstract.  There’s exactly one trade agreement that’s at issue here, and (so far as I’m aware) just one set of EU rules that’s really relevant.  The trade agreement is of course with the US, and the rules in question are food safety.  Because the US red line that has prevented a big US-EU trade agreement over many years is their freedom to export to us a range of foods that are banned here.  I don’t have the expertise to say who is right or wrong when it comes to America’s wide range of genetically modified foods, chlorinated chicken, or beef pumped full of growth hormone (though I’d want to avoid the latter myself if I ate meat in the first place), but we’ll have to accept them if we want that US trade agreement[1].

So that’s the UK importing all those foods, now legally. And the US exporting them in bulk.  And with consequential issues: the US will want to prevent backdoor restraint of trade, so a US importer should have a clear case in law against a British supermarket that uses a labelling scheme (like red tractor) prejudicial to the imports.  And that’s a problem for British farmers: how are they to compete if we hold them to higher standards?  What happens to the countryside if we lower our own standards to help them compete?

The EU wants to keep them out.  It knows there will be smuggling (as with illegal drugs), but we must at least seek to minimise it: confine it to the margins.  In the absence of proper border checks, the only limit on smuggling is the capacity of transport links between Belfast and Dublin.  Hence the problem over that Irish border.

And it seems the EU really are insisting on the open border if we’re to have agreement.  They made concessions in aid of that at the outset: notably the declaration that the Irish border is a unique case, thus avoiding problems like the Spanish feeling the need to veto an agreement that would be unacceptable to them on the Gibraltar border.

Looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

Mrs May has tried to deal with that by preserving regulatory alignment on goods – including of course food standards.  But the US lobbyists in her own party won’t stand for that.  So unless she can beat them, probably with help from other parties in parliament, that’s going nowhere.  And her compromise-attempt was wrapped in a package so convoluted as to present problems to more than just the hard-brexiteers.

Still looks like stalemate.  Who will blink?

What about the brexiteer proposal that technology can be a solution?  The only real question there is, why do our mainstream media allow such disingenuous distraction to stand?  Technology might serve to implement a solution, but that can only happen if and when there’s a political solution to implement!  Claiming it as a solution in itself is about as useful to that as supplying bikes to fish: its only purpose is to confuse the issue and throw a spanner in negotiations.  I consider the failure to debunk it comprehensively to be Gross Negligence on the part of the mainstream media.

[1] I wonder if that even need have been true if our politicians hadn’t made such a big issue of the standards?  If we could have honestly said to the US “our hands are tied”, might a maverick like Trump have moved his red lines (with, no doubt, some give-and-take elsewhere) in the interests of showing the world “look, we can have a trade agreement”?

Red Tape

Just heard businesspeople debating the EU issue.  Unlike most of the crap we’ve been getting from both sides, this discussion aimed to be somewhat informative.

It was chaired by the BBC’s Evan Davis, with a panel comprising two business leaders from each side, and a guest from the Swiss business community to bring insights from a prosperous European non-EU perspective.

The pro-EU panellists basically said what I’d expect: their businesses benefit hugely from not having to deal with red tape in their everyday dealings with the rest of the EU.  One of them was in manufacturing, and drew the contrast between just shipping something vs having to fill tedious forms for every item exported outside the single market.  Whether and to what extent brexit would affect her business surely depends on politics (of 27 countries), and if you take the Gove vision of out-of-the-single-market, hassle-free exports would look like an early casualty.  The other was in financial services, on which subject the most interesting observation came from the Swiss guest: Swiss companies have to establish EU-based subsidiaries to export their financial services!

The Anti-EU panellists were more interesting: their gripe was with EU red tape.  Between them they provided three examples:

  1. Data Protection rules constrain the first speaker’s business of direct marketing.  Hmmm, Americans in his line of business complain of that too.  Perhaps he imagines brexit will exempt us from rules that bind US companies doing business in Europe (even if lobbyists could persuade a UK government to adopt rules more spam-friendly than our current ones)?
  2. The other speaker is a financier, and one of his investee companies struggled with an inordinately long approval process for a new drug.  Well, he may have a valid point, but how could brexit help him?  Pharma research involves big investment (that’ll be why they needed a financier), and needs to sell into big markets.  So I would imagine their top priorities will be EU and US[2] approvals, regardless of brexit.  If the UK process departs from the EU one, that’s just more red tape and expense.
  3. A health-and-safety rule: executive office chairs have to have five legs/wheels[3] at the base to give them stability (yes, four swivelling legs with wheels really is hazardous).  Hmm, well, they all do have that, everyone in the industry works to that standard.  Is anyone realistically going to try and change it?  We can of course still get a four-legged chair without wheels.

So, that’s the red tape that bothers them.  Is there a developed country anywhere in the world without broadly similar rules?  Oh yes, the US lacks data protection, and one or two states[4] are safe havens for spammers.

A particularly interesting nugget came when the chairman asked the Swiss guest about having to abide by EU standards without legally having a say in them.  He replied that in fact swiss business does effectively have a say.  Like anyone else, they can lobby, and if they present a reasonable case for something, the EU is receptive to it.  One might almost conclude that only the Brits get obsessed with legal niceties over reasonable practicalities.  On the other hand, he also pointed out that domestic politics within any of the EU countries may get in the way of them doing any particular deal you might expect – and that the brexit campaigners are assuring us will happen.

[1] (footnote removed, I thought better of it).

[2] I wonder if the much-feared TTIP might help with that, perhaps with a streamlined or even unified process to get approval both sides of the Atlantic?

[3] I wasn’t quite clear on the details.

[4] Notably Florida, unless I’m out-of-date or misremembering.

People’s Front of Judea

(The title is of course from the gentle send-up of loony fringe politics in the Life of Brian).

Our referendum doesn’t just have two opposing sides, it has a bunch of opposing teams on the “out of Europe” side.  Not to mention opposing views among them of what Britain might look like and what direction it might take outside the EU.

That leaves our electoral commission with a bit of a dilemma.  Some horribly unfit-for-purpose rules say it has to hand various resources – like public money and TV airtime – to each side in the campaign.  In order to do so, it seems to have to designate one of those “out” groups as the official campaign, at the expense of the others.  That’ll leave the losers crying foul.

Here’s a plea to them.  Give it to Farage’s lot.

Farage will be insufferable anyway.  Not that I can really blame him in the circumstances: this is the consummation of his entire political career.  And he’s media-friendly: he’ll get  more airtime than pretty-much anyone else regardless of the electoral commission’s decision.  And he’ll tell bigger and more blatant porkies than the mainstream politicians, with a straight face.

If he doesn’t get the money, he’ll not just be ubiquitous, he’ll have a real grievance.  That might in itself make him as unstoppable as Trump: the more outrageous he gets, the more popular it’ll make him.  Better he have the rope to hang himself than to hang the country.

A Hollow Crown

Our prime minister returns triumphant from Brussels, his enemies vanquished.

Or perhaps, he returns triumphant from annoying his friends, bringing with him ammunition for his enemies.

Or does he play a double game against all of us?  But more on that later.

His brief speech we heard on the radio news this evening actually sounded genuinely interesting in parts.  The story told in the media has been consistently different.  Doubtless both based on an element of truth and spun from there.

The big story the media concentrate on (though what they say may not be entirely accurate) is about curbing benefits to migrants, on the face of it something entirely reasonable.  Or rather, something utterly preposterous: it’s only because our benefits system is monstrously broken that EU rules (accidentally) apply to it in the first place.   Germany, for example doesn’t have our “in work benefits” problem.  But instead of fixing it, he inflicts  gratuitous discrimination on (some) foreign workers, in the hope that one more wrong piled on to the mess might make a right.

It’s supposed to reduce net migration.  That seems unlikely to happen.  Farage & Co are saying so, and the nutters are much more dangerous when they’re also right about an issue.  I expect Cameron will pull a rabbit or two from his hat to wrong-foot them ahead of the referendum, but this fundamental point won’t budge.  Two wrongs make an anti-right.

Which brings me to the conspiracy idea: is Cameron in fact saying one thing but working for the opposite (as The Liar did over hunting)?  He has gerrymandered the electorate, conveniently setting aside a manifesto pledge to extend the vote to Brits long-term abroad (who may naturally have the strongest reasons to vote stay) and will also exclude EU citizens resident and working in the UK (ditto).  He’s promised everything the Europhobes asked for in terms of re-formulating the referendum question and terms of the debate, yet no word on conceding to the (europhile) SNP on the subject of the referendum date not clashing with their election.  In short, he seems in his actions to be working for an exit!

Time will tell.  But on a personal level, should I get out now, ahead of a time when there might be serious barriers to a move?  Ugh.

Oh, and if you pay more child benefit to children in the UK than in their home countries, doesn’t that risk incentivising foreign workers to bring their complete families?  So they burden our schools all the more, and become altogether more likely to remain here long-term or permanently. Unintended consequences, or misleading reporting?

EU tilting at windmills

OK, I confess.  I didn’t expect the EU to worry about the Oracle-Sun takeover.  At least, not more than it is obliged to do by virtue of the sheer size of the companies.  Unlike the once-rumoured IBM-Sun deal, there are few areas of major overlap between Oracle and Sun, and none in which the companies are so dominant as to smell of monopoly.  The US competition authorities raised no concerns, and I’d’ve expected the EU ones to do likewise.

Well, OK, there’s Java, over which some have concerns.  And there’s the database.  It’s true: Oracle and Sun own two market-leading databases: Oracle leads in the enterprise, while Sun (MySQL) leads on the Web.  This latter is what apparently causes concern to the European Commission.

So what’s the worst that could happen?  Oracle lets MySQL wither on the vine and supports only a proprietary derivative at a high price, thereby depriving the MySQL community?  Erm, that’s exactly what caused concern amongst some when the deal was first announced!  But it’s hardly realistic: MySQL’s open-source heritage ensures it can’t be killed so long as it has a community of interested users.  Indeed, there are already MySQL forks out there, and MariaDB, Drizzle, or AN Other could stand to take the place of the original amongst the community if Oracle were to try anything too dumb.

As could PostgreSQL, or maybe some alternative disruptive technology we haven’t thought of in this context.

I have no doubt Oracle is well aware of this, and that they didn’t get to be a 100-billion-dollar company by shooting themselves quite so spectacularly in the foot.

No, the biggest risk to competition lies in the cloud of uncertainty that prevails while the deal is in limbo.  By worrying about an Oracle/Sun monopoly and delaying the deal, the EU commission could inadvertently come close to handing one to IBM.

Wrong question, right answer?

The Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty is a serious problem for the EU. It should never have happened, on multiple levels, and for different reasons.

First, as I’ve already said, it was a stupid question to hold a referendum on. The vast majority of voters had little clue of what they were voting on. That’s no criticism of the Irish people, it’s the fault of the politicians who put the wrong question to them. In the context of such a question, “no” is indeed the rational answer.

Should there have been ratification of the treaty without any referendum? On the narrow issue of a single treaty, that would have been the most sensible course: we (the countries of the EU) elect governments to represent us, and take decisions on technical matters.

But on the broader issue of the cumulative weight of EU treaties over the 1990s and 2000s, the case is different. Clearly there are aspects of the EU that lack popular support, and if the Irish No vote can deliver a shock to the system where it is needed, that could be a Good Thing, despite leaving us in a deeply unsatisfactory state.

The EU’s problems are, at least in part, not of its own making. There’s a vicious circle around it and some members, notably the UK, tend to criticise its institutional failings but veto any attempt to fix it.

As for what they should do now, I don’t know. I’m no expert in anything relevant. But here are a few thoughts coming from ignorance:

  • The European Parliament is the one government institution with real democratic credentials, and with a track record that looks pretty good compared to national parliaments. It should be in charge of those matters of government that are legitimately the business of the EU (whatever they may be – that’s another question).
  • The Commission is a horribly politicised executive whose legitimacy is highly questionable. It should be replaced by officers appointed by, and accountable to, the elected parliament.
  • The Council of Ministers should be taken out of the EU altogether. Ministers of the different governments involved can meet up as and when they have cause, just as they do with their counterparts outside the EU.
  • As for the presidency, how about calling it a chairmanship? Political roles should come from the elected parliament.

Clearing the air

When John Major faced a growing tide of dissent and trouble within his own party, he famously told his critics to “put up or shut up”. It worked, to the extent that they put up, he won, and the air was cleared. Well, somewhat.

Now Ming Campbell has spoken of a referendum on our continued EU membership. Is this a “put up or shut up” for our times?

The UK has a longstanding problem with the EU. Most of the press detest it, and are full of anti-EU propaganda. Many politicians have a problem, too: there’s the xenophobic fringe who openly want to come out, and the two main parties both face two ways on the issue. Only the libdems (Campbell’s party) are more or less unambiguously in favour, and would prefer to improve what’s wrong, as opposed to whinge about it yet veto any attempt to fix it.

Apart from being a general scapegoat and whipping-boy, there’s a particular problem concerning the EU: the new treaty, designed to make it work as the much bigger organisation it has become since the accession of the new Eastern European members. This has been labelled by some as a “constitution”, and thus something on which we should have a referendum.

Now, I don’t claim to follow the merits or defects of the proposed treaty itself. Neither, I feel confident in saying, do most of its critics. Nor is anyone (on either side) making an effort to educate us about it: all we hear is argument over whether there should be a UK referendum. Note, not an EU-wide referendum. Nor an England referendum, or indeed other individual countries. But a UK one.

Should we have a referendum on a treaty noone understands? There’s no way people would vote on the obscure issue of the treaty. The campaign would (will) be dominated entirely by FUD, and might very well be lost, regardless of the issues. As has happened in some other EU countries where referenda on EU issues have been held.

No, if there is a referendum, it must be on a question on which people have at least some clue. Our continued membership is such a question. As far as I can see, it’s the only such question on the EU we could have a referendum on (well, maybe Euro currency membership, but noone is asking that). Ming Campbell is right on this one.

Should there be any referendum? That’s a more interesting question. We don’t have a tradition of referenda: in fact the only precedent for a UK referendum was thirty years ago, on exactly the same question. And there’s little doubt the outcome will be the same now, if we have another. The purpose of a referendum would be put up or shut up, and could clear the air, for a while.

I doubt that either referendum will happen. But Campbell was very right to moot this. For his own party, it deals with a tricky problem: either they support a nonsense referendum on a particular treaty, or they get portrayed as conspiring against the people to railroad the treaty through. And if the nonsense referendum does happen, having this alternative on the table will stand a chance of broadening the debate and (somewhat) clearing the air.