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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Balance of Competence Review: some interesting stuff but this is becoming a painful process for Downing Street

With little fanfare, the Government has today published the second round of Balance of EU Competences reports – now making it 14 reports published in total. We won't accuse the Government of seeking to bury the latest batch of reports in the week of the worst UK floods for decades or a major announcement on an independent Scotland’s inability to use Sterling. Rather, it probably wanted to get them out before parliamentary recess.

However, the reports are a mixed bag with the most controversial one - free movement of workers - still missing. While the individual reports contain tales of dissatisfaction with the status quo and EU over interference within policy areas, the reports remain largely descriptive. None of the reports draws any deep conclusions on the broader balance of power between Westminster and Brussels, which they clearly didn't set out to do.

Some of the other reports are far better than others. The Trade and Investment report is genuinely interesting, for example. While some disagree with the report’s conclusion that membership of the customs union and the single market represents the best option on offer for UK trade, the report does at least engage with the alternatives and key debates, such as whether the EU is trade diverting or creating and the fact that the European Parliament can be a liability in trade talks.

We agree that on trade grounds the UK is at the moment better off inside (a reformed) EU.

The Transport report expresses concern about EU action that “fails to take account of the distinct circumstances of Member States with peripheral geographic locations, such as the UK.” The Environment and Climate Change report also contained some interesting factoids. The House Builders Federation for example noted that “in some areas 85% of Community Infrastructure Levy is required for mitigation of the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC, leaving little funding for schools and roads, commenting that this is disproportionate and unsustainable.” And that EU rules can add 18 months to the life cycle of a planning application.

These reports present a useful catalogue of the extent to which the EU now permeates almost all aspects of the UK economy and society, and the logical conclusions of the transport and environment papers is that we need to do more to maximise the EU's trade opportunities but also have some seriously effective mechanisms to fight over-regulation, such as "red" and "green" cards for national parliaments.

Still, the desire for these reports not to reach any ‘controversial’ conclusions, whilst understandable on one level, has created another problem for David Cameron. European partners, media and his MPs may eventually ask ‘Why commission a review that seemingly contradicts your own policy?’ And why seek change when the "evidence" shows that everything is all well apart from some problems at the margins. We still think the basic idea behind the BoC is sound but there's a problem with what this exercise has turned into. It's not so much an attempt to assess the balance of powers but a descriptive public consultation. In its attempt to avoid drawing conclusions, it is doing precisely that, even when the wider criteria against which to measure EU involvement - which should be the point of this exercise - is absent.

Consider the Culture, Tourism and Sport report. In places, it reads like a European Commission advert for EU intervention. For example,
“…Over the last 20 years a Media Programme has supported some highly acclaimed British films including This is England (Shane Meadows, 2006), The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) and The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). In 2010, UK companies received €8.7m to support the production, distribution and screening of films in the UK, and over €6.7m was invested to boost the European cinema releases of over 40 British films.”
That a report drafted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with evidence submitted by various organisations drawn from the culture sector should conclude that the EU’s culture competence is “an important source of funding for the sector, as a driver for new creative partnerships, and as a vehicle for promoting the UK’s ‘soft power’” is hardly a surprise.

Some spending on warm and fluffy initiatives such as films may seem like no big deal. But this is one of the fundamental problems with this entire exercise. Because there is no one weighing these micro aspects of EU membership against a wider set of principles it tells us little about the wider UK national interest. I.e. this funding is simply money the UK has already handed over to Brussels and that surely, if these projects should be publicly funded at all, this should be a decision made by people far more accountable to UK taxpayers than EU officials?

The Balance of Competence Review process was meant to provoke debate about the impact of the EU on the UK writ large. Unless he starts a process of putting these individual reports into the wider context of his vision for the EU, this could become a painful process for David Cameron.


Rik said...

I miss a general line.
And furthermore giving away a lot beforehand in a government report hardly will strengthen your position in a negotiation.

I probably would have done it according to below very rough set up. Some things are 2 sides of one coin.
1. At the end of the day the freetradezone is what brings home the bacon. The rest looks largely cost neutral (and often worse than that) at best.
2. Go for a workable freetradezone. And one that is very likely acceptable for the rest as well (aka definitely not go 'Scottish') for starters.
So likely will include Customs union, similar VAT system, similar standards for stuff that moves over borders (especially when services should be included).
3. Arrange services before the reneg btw.
4. These things cannot be arranged reasonably out of a mutual arrangement like the current treaty.
5. For the rest next to the basic issue is it useful, every time the question whether or not EU law is the best way to arrange things.
EU law as in an complete package where it is difficult to get out off anyway and only for the full monty (so basically all in or all out).
The Swiss case showed that:
a) linking all treaties has very strange consequences also in other areas.
b) it is great to have the option to get out of things when views change in your country.
Shouldnot get out lightly but having the option especially on stuff that still have no real sustainable platform in the local population.
6. So more sign up when benificial but probably in another than the now standard EU form. Just via seperate treaties and donot link the treaties.
7. This is furthermore imho more relevant as it will be hard to negotiate with not the option of an exit on the table as an alternative. And continue to sign up withing the total package would make an exit even more difficult as it already is and unlikely on top of that.
8. Pay attention to the problem areas of the EU as well.
Budget being one of them. Regional fund another.
Immigration/pasport area again another especially when seen in connection with new members which are almost certain as poor as it gets in Europe.
Kangaroo court.
You have to look at things from 2 sides, the movies example is makes clear that it is ok from an isolated UK perspective. But the whole context is that is is effectively carrouselling money and with high costs and remote (aka inefficient) decisionmaking .
9. See where the problems are that the UK population or relevant players have with everything EU.
10. Management structure. Basically the lower things get in a structure the more efficient decisions can be made.

Most of these points I simply miss in the report (at least the parts I have seen which are pretty limited to be honest). Some are mentioned but in a completely ad hoc way. Not going over a checklist to see all is dealt with.

Peter van Leeuwen said...

A vision for the EU will be based on some rationalization of instincts for which supporting evidence will be sought. For quite a few conservatives, these instincts are anti-European (anti-EU). It is a good thing that the the current reports don't support these instincts. But the anti-EU eurosceptics won't be convinced, they will battle on.

Anonymous said...

These reports are just a lot of doctored BS.

The one and only TRUE test is a Referendum for the people. Having watched the EU debacle unfold more since 2008, I can only use the term "incompetencies" as I see no competencies whatsoever.

There is a seismic change coming that is going to wipe out the 3 major political parties.

When we vote to leave we have to put our MPs and Lords on trial for, what is obviously, treason.


Jefferson said...

"These reports are just a lot of doctored BS."

That's the problem with these reviews - the Eurosceptic minority is so dogmatic about the subject that even presenting fairly bland facts (e.g. we benefit from the single market and not being in the EU means we have no say over its rules) garners accusations of bias, conspiracies, and all the rest of it.

The EU does require reform, but reform isn't going to satisfy the Eurosceptic bloodlust. Their anger bears almost no relation to what the EU actually is - it's driven by folktales about Commission diktats, nonsensical Bruges Group cost-benefit analyses, and a pile of gibberish that you can't "reform" on the grounds that it doesn't actually exist.

Rik said...

On Hague as coordinator.
As said several times before that simply doesnot seem to be a good idea.

1. What should a good coordinator do.
-Prepare the discussion eg agenda setting;
-Set ot the basic reneg strategy;
-PR towards voters;
-Advise on the final horsetrading stuff to get to a deal.

2. Hague is simply not good at several of these issues.
Hague is an excellent diplomat on a day-to-day basis. Eg see his reaction on the Swiss referendum, he doesnot easily fall into the trap that many politicians fell into (and later probably wished they had eaten their shoes instead).
But he has most of his strategic calls simply wrong (eg Arab Spring stuff). Simply doesnot seem to oversee the playingfield. Here as well. The inventory is part of a larger process and will have to be used for that. Still it is set up in a way that it is pretty useless for most of the other aspects. Furthermore there is no red line visible at all nothing to hang it on to make drafting an agenda easier.

3. The issues are that complicated that on a top political level it will be very difficult to divide sub-functions beteen differnet persons.
If you do you lose oversight very quickly.
And oversight is essential to come to any real agreement at all (it will end immigrationish if things are allowed to run freely).
The point is that re selling it to the public this is a disaster in the making.

Simply hard to see how you can get voters behind you and backbenchers silent with a report like this (tone most is ok with some minor adjustments it would work).
Simply unlikely to get peace on the homefront.
Which to bring this to a good end is likely essential.

Hague has several disadvantages in this respect.
The most important being that he is not very credible on EU-reform. He simply has a long term credibility issue and a considerable larger one than even Cameron himself (on which the latter does a reasonable good job to restore that unlike Hague).

A soft report, a uncredible EU-reformer and and uprisings in MP and voter ranks simply looks like a recipe for disaster. All fit in the image that basically Cameron/Tory party is not really eager to reform. As well into the image that they donot believe in it they can pull that off. Plus a reneg results that only change oliveoil cans but will be presented as major reforms.
Which will unlikely work real well with both voters and backbenchers.
And it is very doubtful looking at these reports that voters will be really pleased if that is the outcome of a reneg. Most simply want to see real change. It might be just enough to win a referendum but not won that would leave a sustainable situation in the UK.
With a 'softy' end result very likely this will keep playing. What is needed is a reform that enables any government to say to the exit-Taliban, simply now to shut up as the people have spoken and with a substantial and sustainable majority simply want it this way.

Not even to mention how subsequently electoral displeasures (with the whole process as well as the end result)will influence backbenchers in creating the monthly soap opera.
Difficult to see how any backbencher (fearing the EU-sceptics under his voterbase) could be very pleased by the 'advertising material' provided by their headoffice (Cameron&Co).

Freedom Lover said...

An obvious inbalance of competencies applies over flood prevention measures within the EU, & - because of EU powers over Britain - therefore also within the UK. The offending article in this case is the EU's Flood Directive - officially known as DIRECTIVE 2007/60/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL, which covers the assessment and management of flood risks, & is dated 23 October 2007.

The recent floods in the Somerset Levels, along the Thames, & in Kent certainly show the need to retain decision-making powers over flood & water-related matters at the British (ie the national) level, rather than at the EU's level. Why? Because if it remains as it now is, this will guarantee British people (& similarly the Dutch too) more water-borne hardship.

Powwers over floods & the environment should certainly be taken away from Brussels, otherwise there will be more floods. If the EU is reluctant to conceed this, then the matter should be put to a referendum, which any British EU-resistant government would win hands down.

That's good for the people. But bad for Brussels. And about time too!

Unknown said...

I agree with above post except I would also like Edward Heath dug up so we can all p**s on him

Anonymous said...

What is the surprise in the Liblabcon/EUSSR Party finding that the fascistic EUSSR is doing just fine in its illegal occupation of the UK?

This is news in the way that foxes think the chickens in the hen houses they are raiding, are pretty darned satisfied after all.

At some point, the Eurofascist Open Europe is going to have to accept that few people are now buying the lie that any part of the Liblabcon/EUSSR Party is EUSSR-skeptic.

Peter van Leeuwen said...

@Freedom Lover said...
Isn't it telling that for anti-EU eurosceptics all evil somehow has to be associated with something coming from the EU!
I happen to live in the EU, in Holland, six meters under the sea-level in a rural area, and my feet are dry. You nicely confirm my first post under the article.

Anonymous said...


You are naïve at best.

The reason why the Eurosceptic majority (not minority) don't trust the EU and our relationship with it is because we have been completely devolved from it.

Politicians across Europe could have brought the people with them but have thought that they "know best". Well, looking at the state of Europe it is obvious to all (except you perhaps) that it is a disaster and that our politicians have gone seriously off-piste.

And yes, we do benefit from the single market in many respects but it there are too many flaws (for UK & International corporates hide behind it to now not pay any tax, areas where the UK is strong, such as legal services, have been pushed to the bottom of the queue and have not even been made part of the "Single Market" yet).

The rules and regulations that have come from the EU in the financial services space are a great example of how little influence we have being a member! From personally researching and working with each set of rules all I can see is a trade war.

Can you explain why the UK population has not been offered any type of Referendum yet the EU now runs c70% to 80% of UK decision making? Please consider facts such as that before you use words such as "bloodlust". We are angry at having no say.

To me, you just represent one of the many brainwashed and economically illiterate that can be found all over the EU.

In ten years time you explain to our children why they have no jobs. Good luck!


Jefferson said...


Ignoring the quasi-conspiratorial gibberish about people being "brainwashed" (aka the last refuge of the moron) we're not having a conversation about whether the EU is perfect or not. We're talking about the disjoint between reality and the UKIP brand of Euroscepticism. You can't win these people over because they're not discussing genuine reforms, they simply want to rip up the EU for the sake of it.

You've mentioned some of these claims yourself - the airbrushing of the 1975 referendum from the history books, the sound bite about 70-80% of our laws coming from the EU (completely unproven and irrelevant in any case).

To this we'll add the dogmatic belief in the idea that the Commission dictates laws to us, rather than simply proposing them. The fact that the British public thinks the net contribution to the EU budget is on average 23% of GNI, when it's actually 0.2%. The fact that the vast majority of EU legislation is related to the single market, not social policy, foreign policy or anything else.

None of these things are legitimate criticisms, they're misunderstandings, and you don't treat misunderstandings with reform, you treat them with education.

Average Englishman said...

@ Jefferson

Same old stuff. Us poor plebs need 'educating' because we're too dumb to inderstand how wonderful the EU is and how our masters in Brussels are such very clever people who have our best interests at heart and will lead us all to a new promised land where numpties like us don't need to think anymore; just work away to pay taxes to keep the Commissars' in new Mercs and shiny new offices and pay for the nice new satellite control system that will watch our every move in our cars. That sounds more like a nightmare than a dream world to me.

Trade links are fine; that's why I voted in 1975 with many others for the UK to join the Common Market, definitely NOT the monster that is the EUSSR, where Commissioners make the law in secret and my vote counts for nothing.

Oh and as for bloodlust, my enthusiasm for the UK withdrawing from the EU would be nothing compared to what it would be if I were one of the over 50% youth unemployed in Spain, Italy, etc. A very hard rain is gonna fall and it won't be started by UKIP.

Anonymous said...


The issue is not about "re-educating" people it is about gaining some kind of democratic validation for what has happened and what is going to happen wrt the EU.

Without democratic validation the whole thing is just not sustainable. Can't you see that - or have you been brainwashed?

I am nearly 50 and do not remember ever being asked if I wanted to be governed by the EU. Free trade YES, Sovereignty NO.

On the subject of 70-80% of our laws coming from the EU : Viviane Reding pointed to that last week. She is an EU Commissioner - do you not believe her?! And as far as I am aware the last Parliamentary session saw 200 bills be read - no where near the 800 that you would normally expect. This may be the lowest figure in the history of the UK Parliament.

You have been brainwashed. Shame on you for advocating "re-education" and abandoning the wonderful way of life and democracy that our forefathers fought for.

Go and "re-educate" yourself. Or are you Barroso in disguise?