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Dr Lee Rotherham: So Ministers want to review how the EU works? Right, then - let's give them a helping hand...

Dr Lee Rotherham is an author, historian and political campaigner, who has served as a TA reservist on three overseas deployments.  He is on the Approved EU Candidates List.

A recent poll offers some intriguing statistics on where the public may currently stand on the UK’s relationship with the EU. Open Europe, which commissioned the study, interpreted it as backing a policy of renegotiation over an immediate exit.

Looking at the polling data in the annex, it seems to me that the results are more nuanced. It does suggest the mood leans more towards backing the “significant return of powers to Westminster” over outright withdrawal. But notably, though, around two thirds of those questioned either wanted straight out, or a major shift in the terms of the deal (without exploring in treaty parlance if that amounts to the same); only one in four either appear happy as things stand or want more basting in the EU sauce.

But then, quite remarkably and rather less flagged up as a detail, the responses also show that six in ten of those questioned also believe it unlikely that the UK will get the changes it wants. So it appears to indicate a pessimistic majority might be prepared to give it a go and see what happens, but stoically expect that after being reasonable, gentlemanly and very British about it all we’ll have to quit anyhow. The destination along either route would then be identical; a new deal and a positive end result whose rationale is set out for instance in this paper by David Campbell-Bannerman.

Bounded by such a backdrop, here today is where the Government’s review of the balance of EU competences is so critical. Given the importance of the initiative it’s quite remarkable that more credit hasn’t been given for what amounts to a potentially revolutionary Whitehall study.

According to past newspaper reporting, there have been two official attempts to try to quantify costs and benefits arising from EU membership, both undertaken from within the Treasury, once in Ken Clarke’s day and once during Gordon Brown’s. On both occasions they were reportedly quashed as soon as they were uncovered, a detail that of itself commends the initiative and makes you wonder in which windowless bunkers and stationary cupboards those forlorn and heroic staff now are.

A new phase in this Government’s review has just been announced. You can find for instance DEFRA’s call for submissions here, and that page also links across to the other departments. I wholeheartedly recommend to ConservativeHome readers that they consider contributing.

I don’t mean firing off a text the size of War and Peace, containing the testy diatribes that occasionally blast across the comments sections like a Siberian gale. By contrast, many readers will know from firsthand experience what EU regulations have meant to them personally and have something precise and actionable to contribute. It may be that red tape has blighted their business, their charity, community or church group. Perhaps some legislative burden or VAT surcharge has hindered their expansion or stopped their activities. A single page contributed here and there, explaining in detail how the man in Brussels really doesn’t know best, will start to add up. From that, ministers will be able to draw up a more coherent list of the tangible damaging effects of EU membership, and begin to work out what competences (as the poll question puts it) are “significant” and need to be brought back. The spreadsheet, I predict, will be immense.

It might of course be the case that readers identify some area where EU legislation has helped. Let’s have that too. The audit should contain both sides of the ledger so that the appraisal can be full and true. The question before us is one of balance, and where it tips. No Eurosceptic has anything to fear from a frank review of the national interest, since we do not need to be tethered to a federal Europe to occasionally cooperate with our neighbours.

It’s in this spirit of positivity that I’ll be sending in a study by the European Commission. In late 2012, DG Enterprise and Industry conducted a consultation exercise with small businesses to try to identify which regulations they found most irksome. This appears not to have received the attention it merits, and can be extended to identify equally well which EU competences are of concern to SMEs at least.

The top ten troubles as it turned out were regulations on chemicals; customs controls and formalities; direct taxation issues; Health and Safety at work; organisation of working time; product safety including labelling; public procurement rules; recognition of professional qualifications; rules on the transport of goods; VAT; and waste legislation. Some are those are very surprising given the purported benefits of EU membership. The wider list, and extended across all those affected by EU activities, is of course far bigger.

ConHome readers might find the four pages of the questionnaire, prompting possible red tape nightmares the small businessman might identify, a useful starting point for working out how the EU has impacted on their own lives. A sensible measure though may be to follow the telling advice of the Commission official, anticipating the torrent about to be unleashed; “Please indicate the areas where EU regulation is the most burdensome (MAX 10!)”

Can we guarantee change will follow the audit, that full sentence will follow judgement of our EU woes? Of course not. But inertia is a given if people affected by directives and regulations don’t share their expertise and experience, and speak out. Here’s a chance to put the problems fully on record and display. Let’s not waste it.


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