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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive


by Roger Bibbings
January 2021

Regaining control over our money, borders and laws? Well, those of us who thirty years ago took part in the preparations for the 1992 ‘open market’ knew what a challenge it was to simplify the tangle of ‘non-tariff barriers to trade’ that stood in the way of its completion. In the field of safety, harmonising product and equipment standards to prevent technical frictions in trade was followed by harmonisation of standards of worker protection to avoid what was called ‘social dumping’ – that is, investment going to places in Europe which still had lower and cheaper standards of protection.

In general, Britain, with its history of occupational safety since 1832, was in the lead and actually contributed a lot at the detailed level to this part of the European integration project. But now at a minute to midnight in negotiations over our future trade relations with the EU we are faced with a Prime Minister who insists that remaining legislatively aligned with our neighbours over social and environmental standards is a fundamental threat to our right of self-determination. If he and his Party are committed, as they say they are, to their philosophy of ‘levelling up’, then surely the continuation of common minimum standards in these areas across Europe should pose no threat to us. In the Johnsonian nirvana we will always be somewhere ahead surely? If our ambition exceeds European norms we are automatically protected from penalty – and by seeking to do better than the rest of Europe we are exercising sovereignty surely?

But that is not the Government’s agenda. Their real agenda is one of deregulation and lowering of standards in a bid to make the UK into a bargain basement, ‘anything goes’ zone where business and overseas investors can be relieved of many of these ‘costs’. It is all about lowering down not levelling up.

Of course the idea that we have the sovereign right to decide which standards we choose to adopt sounds great but what it ignores is that in all trading relationships, be they within the European Market or across the world, in Britain as in every other country, our freedom to choose which measures and requirements we adopt is being continuously limited by internationalisation of standards, be that via ISO, ILO, IMO and all the other bodies that exercise influence over the technicalities of world trade. And in general, these are aligning more and more with standards in Western Europe (witness the alignment of CEN and ISO) and are a force for improvement – and however ‘sovereign’ we might want to be in an internationalised environment, the scope for variation and difference is ever more limited.

Does this really matter? Do the British people regard it as a diminution of their sovereignty that our manufacturing sector cannot return to British technical standards like Whitworth or British Standard Fine screw threads or insist on BSI standards for products that don’t align with CEN/CENELEC or ISO standards? No, they do not. In fact, those ‘in the know’ here take pride in the fact that very often it is UK science and technology that lead in international standards making.

The truth is that at the technical level we are becoming one highly interconnected world in which differences of national administration are daily becoming less significant. If therefore we are to have harmonious and effective relationships with our neighbours and trading partners, we cannot do so from a position of glorious isolation. Our real strategic goal should be to use all our technical and ‘soft power’ advantages to be ‘primus inter pares’, a leading team player that also recognises that if there are particular things that don’t suit us, or we think we can do differently but better, we have recourse to appeals mechanisms and all sorts of adjudication to sort such difficulties out.

There is a huge gulf opening up between those in our society who understand and are happy to live in a world of regionally and globally governed international trade and those whose vision of Britain is hopelessly naive, insular, nostalgic and backward looking. When the latter’s petit bourgeois fantasy starts to be exposed as the EU moves to defend its self-interest, who will blamed? One thing is certain. As sure as eggs are eggs those truly to blame for the ensuing chaos will seek to deflect it onto the usual suspects: immigrants, unions, liberals, the Irish, the BBC, the judges, the House of Lords – anyone other than the gerontocracy that now inhabits the deep inner recesses of the Conservative Party.

The toxicity of nationalism and separatism which is on the rise from Edinburgh to London, from Barcelona to Ankara, will not last. In the end, in order to survive, we Earthlings have to cooperate – none of us can have it entirely our own way – and a good thing too.

Roger Bibbings
Roger writes this article in a personal capacity