The lorries in the queues in Kent are waiting for border checks because of EU product and produce regulations. Those in favour of Brexit used to argue that we need to be free from red tape. But in fact now that the UK is outside the EU zone of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, traders on both sides of the Channel have to pay meticulous attention to trade standards relating to the goods or produce they are trying to shift.
It will be even worse from July when the UK Government plans to impose trade checks on imports from the EU (currently not checked). And, from January 2023, industrial and electrical products will not be allowed on sale in the UK with the CE quality mark showing it conforms to EU standards. It is reported by the British Chamber of Commerce that many firms do not want this: it will be expensive for them to ensure separate UK labelling. It is as yet unclear how the standard-setting for separate UK labels will take place.
The process of framing a regulation
So how does the EU pass their product regulations? To start with, the Commission, which is the EU’s civil service, ie the admin team of the EU, has various departments: some for thematic and some for geographical areas. For example, there is a team working on agriculture, one on environmental matters and, geographically, there is for example an Africa team and an Asia team.
The EU is represented in other multinational institutions, like the Council of Europe, and the African Union and has offices in a large number of countries across the world. There is a London EU office supplying EU information to the UK. It is now a delegation rather than an office of the EU Commission.
To demonstrate how the EU arrives at a regulation, let us take a practical example: how much cocoa powder is to be in chocolate sold as a Mars bar and how to grade the produce. That sounds an unimportant decision but, when you shop, you will want to have the proper information on the packaging. The labelling is important, with the exact ingredients specified, for health and safety reasons.
The CE quality mark of the single market was the sign that the product complied with all applicable EU regulations. As a consumer, you can rely on standards being the same across the EU. Hence the regulations.
Whose line is it?
The suggestion for a regulation can come from the Commission, as one of the teams dealing with food standards might have found that there is confusion in the market about what is contained in chocolate. Parents want to be assured that standards exist and are adhered to.
The commission drafts a proposal, based on hundreds of meetings in the appropriate working groups made up of officials from EU countries together with representatives of the affected producers, and relevant professionals, such as health experts.
When the UK was a member of the EU, the government sent civil servants and experts to work in the Commission to support the various teams and the UK commissioner.
Over to …
The draft proposal is sent from the Commission to the Council secretariat, which sends it out to the various representatives of the EU countries in Brussels. For the UK, there was the so-called UKRep, which was one of the largest posts the UK had abroad and there were people there specialising in topics like security, trade, foreign policy etc.
UK government departments had officials working there and communicating daily with their home departments taking instructions from them to present the UK views at EU meetings. Finally, every draft decision was then sent to the European Scrutiny Committees of the UK House of Commons and House of Lords to sign off. My article on Scrutiny described this process.
Leave it out!
The Leave campaign wrongly stated that the UK was ‘taking back control’ as it left the EU. Whereas in fact after Brexit the UK does not participate in the decisions taken in Brussels. However, many of those decisions impact our trade with EU countries.
The more we diverge from the regulations which were agreed with our active participation in the decision process, the more arduous trade will become. Why does this matter? Because about 45% of our food and around 70% of our medicines come from the EU.
Nothing to see here (yet)
The curious thing is that at present the UK has not so far changed any standard that applied before we left the EU. Any exporter of UK products or produce to the EU knows that they have to comply with EU standards. So the checks that are going on at the border are really just a formality, almost just a parade of practising the systems to ensure that they work before any divergence in standards that might occur.
If the UK is foolish enough to start to change standards in any type of product that is exported to the EU, then this will incur more time-consuming checks at borders. So such a change is likely to be resisted by the UK trading sector concerned, unless there is some overriding reason for a specific UK standard. If new technology demands new standards, it would be much better to be in consultation with the EU working groups in that sector.
How long will it take for the UK Government to realise this?