Recently, the well-respected construction expert, Geoff Wilkinson was quoted in the Architects’ Journal saying that “with Brexit, we are in the potentially very helpful position of being able to start rewriting whatever rules we want. Up until now we have been tied into European standards, but now we can actually be the world’s leader on this. We could start to write the codes of practice and regulations that aren’t tied to anyone else’s rules”.
This was a very inspiring and generous comment, all the more so because Wilkinson had stood as a Green Party candidate in the 2019 General Election. He was writing predominantly with reference to the freedom to mandate stricter carbon reduction, recycling and materials re-use, but the context was the sovereign freedom so to do. He was advocating that we might now have the potential – not necessarily the guarantee – to improve things on our own terms.
The critical responses to his comments pointed out that the UK has had a hand-in creating EU legislation and therefore pointing the finger at the EU’s standard-setting is disingenuous. Critics also noted that the EU sets minimum standards and there is nothing stopping the UK from exceeding them. The majority of criticism noted that leaving the EU will not lead to improvements, but – almost by definition – will only lead to a terminal decline in standards. In this scenario, Brexit is an inexorable race to the bottom? As the Institute of Employment Rights says of Brexit: “expect a relentless process of ossification, stagnation, and erosion of UK labour rights.”
In response, it is true that the British government, as well as thousands of UK civil servants and business representatives are regularly in closed consultation about setting European standards. The British Standards body (BSI) notes that “95 per cent of BSI’s work is on international and European standards”. In many respects, the UK government is keen to rely on EU standards as a way of excusing its own hand in writing many of them. Undoubtedly, UK politicians have scapegoated the EU by wilfully outsourcing decisions to them and then blaming their strictures when things go wrong. A low point was reached when The Daily Express ran a story blaming EU regulations for the Grenfell tragedy. It’s clear that one simple gain in leaving the EU regulatory and standards framework is that it removes the excuse of EU interference. Brexit, as an expression of autonomy and self-determination means that Britain must now propose and defend its standard-setting and regulatory record on its own terms.
At the moment, the bureaucratic machinery that agrees standards across the EU is in fact a competitive rather than harmonious relationship. German DIN standards, UK’s British Standards Institution (BSI), French AFNOR and others are regulatory bodies that fight for their own national standards to be pre-eminent. These institutions spend months and years and huge sums of money to get the EU to agree which standards – often the standards developed by one nation – will be supreme in a given sector. The usual process is for EU proposed standards to be voted on and the winning standard must be adopted by each member state. Until January 31st 2020, the UK had 7 per cent of vote. Horse-trading often accounts for the rest.
The fundamental objective of harmonised regulatory standards is to make international trade easier to conduct within EU member states. If all manufacturers and suppliers have the same benchmarks of quality, then international business knows what it is getting: minimising the additional costs of proving compliance with otherwise independent national standards. Standardisation also acts, in many circumstances, as a tariff on wider international trade using non-compliance as a block to EU market entry. It’s worth noting that the UK tends to promote many of its national standards for consideration to the International Standards Organisation, a global bureaucracy that trumps the EU in authority creating an even more top-down structure.
Withdrawal from the EU should force the UK to adopt similar or higher standards of its own products in order to maintain export trade leadership with the European Union; it can then also negotiate legitimate acceptable standards for the import of other goods and services within and beyond the European Union. These import standards can be stricter or weaker or stay as they are; that now becomes our choice. Harmonisation becomes an open discussion amongst allies rather than a purely closed-door nod amongst bureaucrats. In a competition between the standards set by sovereign decision versus EU mandates, the end result may be equivalence and harmonisation if that is the right thing to do, but the decision to implement those standards will have been sovereign.
In this way it is a political and not simply a financial, business or technocratic discussion. After a meaningful Brexit, the UK decides on the kind of standards that we need. If we reason that the UK is selling out standards and ripping up good practice guidance, then we can oppose and reject that political direction at the ballot box. As it stands, EU rules dictate that the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) must be notified and reach Commission agreement before any national standards are adopted into national law.
Having fewer or leaner regulations is seen by many as a euphemism for a deregulated race to the bottom. But fewer, simpler or looser standards doesn’t necessarily mean more cavalier or dangerous. Indeed it ought to mean that we could propose more efficient and thorough standards and regulation. To think otherwise is merely cynical. As it happens, the EU mandates “minimum standards” – often because they are compromise standards. This has long meant that nations only aspire to meet the minimum. Admittedly, any trading nation could have offered to surpass these standards – and many do – but if the benchmark is set what is the reason to go beyond what is required?
Undoubtedly, the UK can and should do better. Boris Johnson has stated that one of the benefits of sovereign independence is that “whatever the EU comes up with, we can match it and pass it into the law of this country” without being mandated to do so. The very point of national sovereignty is simply that we can choose. Liberating ourselves from the EU’s regulatory and standard-setting framework affords us the opportunity to set global standards.
Nothing is guaranteed but now that democracy has been reinvigorated, we are better able to hold the government’s feet to the fire on all matters. But drafting fewer regulations could and should be invigorating; and setting national standards in a global context ought to be liberating. Being accountable for what is really required for more and better trade, employment rights, product safety, or environmental standards is surely a good thing.