Those wanting a close UK-EU relationship should beware Brussels’ opaque law-making processes

Those wanting a close UK-EU relationship should beware Brussels’ opaque law-making processes

The Council of the European Union doesn’t reach decisions by magic. A cascade of rules and laws flows through over 150 specialised working parties and committees known as the ‘Council preparatory bodies’.

Their remit is as varied and collectively extensive as the competences of the EU that they cover. Some, like the Political and Security Committee or the EU Military Committee Working Group, discuss material sufficiently sensitive as to make even their agendas classified. But the output of the remainder – from the High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration (HLWG) to the Trade Policy Committee (Services and Investment) via the Codex Alimentarius Working Party (CCMAS) – at least give some early indicators as to the legislative material that will emerge down the line for those that follow their paper trails.

Many cover international meetings to which post-Brexit UK may soon be sending its own reps with negotiating powers, crafting international rules at source. Others deal with the output of Euroquangos like the EMCDDA, or EU offshoots like the European Soil Partnership. Parliamentarians will have heard of few, and quite possibly none of them. Perhaps this is convenient for democratic sensitivities. Even by this stage, long after the Commission’s craftwork in framing the policy has been in play, it will often already be too late to inject much democratic oversight into the draftsmanship.

Their discussions and negotiations cover scores of items every week. A tiny sample representation taken from agendas from just the last few days includes:

  • A proposal changing VAT in an SME scheme
  • Conclusions on cross-border circulation of European audiovisual works with an emphasis on co-productions
  • A proposal for harmonising excise duties on alcohol and alcoholic beverages
  • A mooted regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse
  • The European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment
  • An EU list of non-cooperative jurisdictions for tax purposes (of enduring interest to OCTs)
  • A text on agricultural aspects of a strategic vision for a climate neutral economy
  • Draft conclusions on tourism as a driver for growth, jobs and social cohesion
  • A discussion of a report on EU macro-regional strategies
  • New rules on class action over consumer rights
  • A mid-term review of the EU Forest Strategy
  • A document on High Quality Early Childhood Education and Care Systems
  • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sport dimension
  • Proposed changes to rail passengers’ rights and obligations
  • A draft on patient safety in the EU’s hospital and ambulatory sector
  • EU Industrial Policy: Vision for 2030

If Westminster’s view of the Council’s activities is at best peripheral, then consider the level of accountability MPs hold over the Commission’s comitology process. In 2017, there were 267 Commission versions of these committees feeding into the Council, each with even less insight from Parliament. MEPs themselves barely get a rare glimpse before any draft emerges. And this is before we even reflect on the prior role and drafting input of the Commission’s Advisory Bodies and Expert Groups that inform and shape the first drafts…

The nature of the EU law-making process is opaque, inherently and systemically undemocratic and a prime reason underpinning why people voted to “take back control”. This factor should inform our decisions in the next few days.

For as long as the UK remains closely attached, or subject to, the EU’s rule-making processes, then the output of these committees will be important, as will the mandates and policy aspirations of the Commission officials and their own advisory groups that feed them too.

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), transitionally the UK will have marginal input and no veto over many of these laws as they are being formed. The Withdrawal Agreement’s text is almost designed to read as a mechanism for humiliating civil servants posted to UKREP. Old hands will need grief counselling.

Whether or not the WA is passed, even more critical, however, will be the nature of the end treaty. A bad one, minimising change, carries with it the prospect not merely of enduring UK administrative inertia but also of retaining the democratic void.

An EU deal that leaves the UK in a so-called “Norway Plus” arrangement, for example, bolts the country inside a heavy regulatory union and customs establishment with marginal and tangential roles for MPs. Such a model also removes the opportunity to redress a great deal of the red tape and gold plating issues that have hampered previous governmental attempts at regulatory reform. Our inability to reshape bad laws because they are in civil service speak “out of scope” – ‘off limits’ because they are drafted at EU level – has been Whitehall’s guilty secret for years. A study of this problem and suggested reforms can be found here. The “Norway” route does little to fix them.

So MPs, as they consider what type of Brexit they are voting on, might usefully reflect on their own future relationship with the true law drafters. Rather than simply bandy challenges to the Government asserting some new-found but ill-understood sense of primacy, they might reflect on what their vote means in terms of genuinely retrieving power from the ‘legislative upstream’ where it presently sits.

They might consider whether they are in effect rebelling just to preserve their current second-class status, rubber-stamping the output of a remote world so little understood by our lawmakers; the obscure meeting rooms and barter chambers of EU comitology.

In any event, I invite the reader simply to review the list and range of these law-scripting committees at Council and Commission level, and for MPs to reflect on the proportion of their output that their vote will affect.