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Copied from the Spectator on the expanding power of the EU

Parliament of eunuchs


Anthony Browne

If you are a Christian Aider worried that free trade is worse than slavery, where should you put your X? What if you are a workaholic wanting to preserve the right to put in as many hours of overtime as you want? What if you are an art dealer angered at being compelled to give a percentage to the undeserving descendants of dead painters every time a picture is sold? Should you vote Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat?

Actually, for all the say your MP will have on these policies, you might as well vote Monster Raving Loony party. Once, in my naive cynicism, I believed the golden rule of politics was that the main aim of all institutions was to accrue power. And then I moved to Brussels. It is not the EU institutions that shy away from the Darwinian struggle for power, of course. From Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, one can only watch in admiration the deft and determined way Eurocrats talk about, plan and succeed in taking power from national parliaments in their campaign for the 'construction of Europe'.

The House of Commons and our humble MPs, on the other hand, have apparently given up the will to legislate. Like teenagers terrified of responsibility, most MPs actively support giving away their power: they support more Europe, which inevitably means less Westminster.

Before we joined the Common Market in 1973, Parliament was sovereign, proud that it could and did debate and legislate on just about everything. So sovereign was it that children were taught that no Parliament could bind the hands of its successors. But being an MP ain't what it used to be. Today, the Mother of Parliaments has lost half its power, with Brussels making half of British laws. In some areas - such as environmental and consumer protection - Brussels makes the overwhelming majority. In other areas, it makes all of them. The European constitution confirms that 'the Union shall have exclusive competence' in customs, including trade; cross-border competition policy; and conservation of 'marine biological resources' - that's fish. It is actually illegal - a breach of treaty punishable by the European Court of Justice - for Westminster MPs to pass laws on these issues.

The constitution also sets out 'shared competences' - where Westminster can legislate only when Brussels has decided not to - in internal market, economic cohesion, agriculture, environment, consumer protection, transport, energy, security and justice, and some areas of public health and social policy. A series of parliamentary answers has started revealing the extent of EU power. Between 1997 and 2003 the number of regulations, directives and decisions passed by the EU increased by 4,807. According to the Cabinet Office's regulatory impact unit, 'around half of all new legislation with a significant impact on business, charities and the voluntary sector now emanates from the EU'.

The array of EU regulation is bewildering. It governs such matters as working time, ground water standards, food labelling, data protection, animal by-products, employment relations, fire precautions, proceeds from crime, car tax, parental leave and TV advertising. When the Commission legislation factory recently announced a bonfire of red tape, the only law it said it could do without was harmonisation of the size of packets of chicory coffee.

The EU, which only started thinking about the economic burden of its legislation this year, passes far more costly legislation than Westminster. According to a study by the British Chambers of Commerce, the total cost of regulation introduced since 1998 is 30 billion, of which 24.9 billion is European. In other words, 83 per cent of the regulatory burden on business comes from Brussels. As Sir Digby Jones, the CBI boss, wrote in a recent pamphlet, 'From the business point of view, there is hardly any important policy area outside the control of Brussels.' There is little point being a business-friendly MP, because there is little you can do about it. There is no point in being an MP outraged that people on minimum wage are being taxed to pay Tate & Lyle more than 100 million in subsidies a year to export sugar, since you will never get to vote on it. There is as much point in an MP having opinions on international trade policy, fisheries, consumer labelling and food standards as there is a parish councillor having opinions on the Iraq war.

It is true there is a European scrutiny committee in the House of Commons, but it is a contradiction in terms: it does not scrutinise Europe. Instead, with 1,000 EU documents a year to consider, the badly attended committee just nods them through. The MPs are being rational rather than lazy - there is no point wasting time on legislation you can't change.

It is easy to see why the government agrees to transfer decision-making to Brussels. It means that it can avoid the legislative gauntlet of disgruntled MPs on one side and stroppy lobbyists and media on the other. Instead, ministers just decide a policy with their clubbable EU counterparts behind closed doors in the pink granite Council of Ministers, and then announce it in a press statement to Brussels correspondents and hand it to Westminster to rubber-stamp. With minimal public scrutiny, passing laws in Brussels is so easy that, as with the fridge mountain fiasco, the government sometimes has little idea what legislation it is agreeing to. The Labour government has recently signed up to four separate EU laws that set minimum standards for asylum, enabling them to avoid the annual catfight of forcing through immensely problematic asylum laws in the full glare of Westminster.

Sometimes it rebounds on governments. In 1997 Gordon Brown wanted to reduce VAT on domestic fuel to zero, but Brussels told him he couldn't cut it below 5 per cent. Michael Howard was told by the Commission that his plans for asylum were illegal. Germany is in a state of shock from a constitutional court case that is revealing just how much power has leaked to Brussels.

In some countries, like Denmark and Sweden, the death by a thousand cuts of their once proud parliamentary democracies is a source of national concern. In Britain, though, MPs rarely remark on their ever-shrinking powers. They don't understand what is happening, are bored by it, or just assume that since Brussels is a good thing more of it must always be better.

Although there is no point voting for MPs for their views on trade or fisheries policy, you can vote for MPs who want more say on such issues. Only one mainstream party wants more Westminster and less Europe and is opposed to the constitution, and that is the Conservative party. And just think what will happen if the Conservatives win. Two months after the election, when the UK assumes the EU presidency, Michael Howard would become president of the European Union, giving him huge power over the way the EU is run. An EU president opposed to the constitution and determined to repatriate EU powers - suddenly European politics would be almost interesting.

Anthony Browne is Europe correspondent for the Times.