The government’s review of the balance of competences is trundling on to its next stage. The wide-ranging review of where the balance of power lies between the EU and the UK seeks to start from first principles, and has no sacred cows: all elements of European policy are up for debate. It’s a curious beast: neither a convincing sop to EU escapeniks, nor – given that other European governments have decided to stay out of it – a communal effort to reach a new equilibrium. It appears to be a serious intellectual endeavour, but it’s also an answer in search of a question. In the bizarre world of British European politics, the 2010 coalition agreement is taking on the aura of a modern day Treaty of Versailles, a phenomenon of its own time whose consequences are playing out in a different political world. The ‘review of the balance of competences’ or, in the acronym world of the civil service, BoC, was a product of the treaty. It was, in a good continental kind of way, a compromise, designed to control the debate by dragging itself out, a heavily armed phalanx of reports (there will be 32 of them all told) soaking up the blows and abuse of European politics along the way.
The review has been broken down into (not-so) bitesize chunks: we are currently in the middle of the ‘second semester’ (or S2 ); the environment and climate change are among the next batch, along with a host of other themes. Lawyers and policy makers will be kept busy churning out case studies, legal analyses, counter-factual scenarios and snappy executive summaries through the coming months.
The pros and cons of the Emissions Trading Scheme, biofuels targets and environmental legislation are under the microscope now; the delights of the the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies must wait for next year. This splurge of material will go into the black box and studious public servants will produce conclusions (which won’t, of course, be too conclusive). But then what?
Any renegotiation will be over big ticket items, not tiddlers
Right at the start of the process, the Conservative group Fresh Start produced a shopping list of demands for a renegotiation; it’s hard to imagine them reading studiously through the BoC reports and changing their minds about the balance of power over health laws. It’s also difficult to picture the prime minister heading to Brussels with the reports on his iPad, flicking through to page 3,003 and pointing out to the assembled leaders that, in fact, the research shows that the application of regulation 882 of the Official Controls on Hygiene is skewed this way or that.
Surely, if an actual renegotiation took place, for a Tory leader it would have to be a few big ticket items. And it would seem pointless to include the environment: “We’re getting out of laws that make your air purer and your water cleaner” is hardly a rallying call. The exact length and content is still probably up for grabs (and still probably up to Germany’s Angela Merkel), but that calculation has been done in Paris and Berlin and surely in London, if not yet in Brussels.
BoC may reveal new ways to skin the cat of environmental protection
That was all meant to be happening by 2017. But, following the local elections, buzzing airwaves and thumped dispatch boxes, and the curious sight of government ministers abstaining on the motion to endorse their own legislative agenda, politics is outpacing process. Who knows if the prime minister’s timetable will survive European elections next June.
In the meantime, the BoC leviathan will continue to uncurl. And for the policy nerds among us, it will probably be interesting. There are good questions to be asked about how best to protect our islands’ nature, air and water while embracing fruitful economic activity. There are lots of ways of skinning the cat of environmental protection, and maybe the review will throw up some surprises, maybe even reveal some truths.
What we can be sure of is that whatever comes out of it will be used by all sides to make their case. It’ll be a veritable treasure-trove of incontrovertible evidence in both directions. So as an NGO or a business with a vested interest in the outcome of the European debate, it’s something of a zero-sum game: stay out, and your case won’t be heard; go in, and you won’t know what will be made of it. There are risks and benefits of getting stuck in. But, in the end, as in all negotiations, it’s probably better to be in the room.