Letter from Strasbourg

Richard North 10 September, 2001

(warmwell's highlighting)

It is not often that one stumbles on a revolution and even less often that one walks into it when nobody else has noticed. But such was the bizarre experience when the European Parliament decamped to Strasbourg after the summer holidays for another week of law-making and, once again, I had my nose to the grindstone preparing voting briefs for my members.

The revolution itself will have devastating consequences:

it is set finally to end all vestiges of independent government in the UK - and other EU member states - as we know it.

Yet, in the way of the EU, so complex and technical were the details that it was not surprising that it was not noticed, even (or especially) by the majority of the members of the European Parliament who were on the spot, supposedly looking after our interests.

And if the word 'revolution' and the claims made for it sound extreme, consider where we stand at the moment. Since our joining the EU, a large part of our law-making powers have been given to the EU and, progressively through various treaties, those powers have increased to the point that

some 80 percent of our law is now made in Brussels.

(Not surprisingly, contemporary politicians want us to concentrate on health, education and law and order - these are amongst the few issues over which our government retains any power). But, while the EU has been largely content with making laws, it has been content to leave the implementation and enforcement to member states. And, as is well known, implementation has been patchy and there is often little or no enforcement. But all that is to change.

The EU is now planning to take over both implementation and enforcement. Therein lies the 'revolution'.

The clues to this forthcoming revolution came in two proposals for new legislation up before the parliament and a speech on EU governance by Commission president Romano Prodi. As regards the legislation, neither were subjects calculated to set the world on fire: one was a proposal for a regulation on civil aviation, creating 'a European Aviation Safety Agency'; the other was a regulation on 'competition'.

The sinister thing about the aviation safety proposal was that it actually had nothing at all to do with safety.

EU member states already have their own safety agencies, which cooperate freely though an inter-governmental organisation known as the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA).

Thus, the true agenda was about replacing existing agencies with a single EU institution, giving the EU Commission direct power over safety matters.

And this is no figment of a fevered, Eurosceptic imagination. In the very text of the Commission proposal the mechanism it stated that this was to be achieved 'through the gradual integration of national systems'.

Turning to the proposal on competition, the ostensible aim of this regulation was to improve the enforcement of the EU rules on competition - in the context of the single market where all sorts of market abuses continue to exist.

As it stands, enforcement of the competition rules is a Commission monopoly which - because Commission resources are limited - means that only a very few cases are processed. The intention is that some of the powers should be delegated to member states so that national competition authorities and national courts can deal with cases of anti-competitive behaviour.

On the face of it, this looks like an admirable piece of decentralisation, and that is how the proposal was sold to the European parliament.

But, as always, the devil was in the detail. In carrying out their duties, the Commission wants national competition authorities to form a 'network' which must work to Commission guidelines, must apply Community law and must obey European Court of Justice decisions - all under the supervision of the Commission which reserves the right to take over any investigation or re-locate it to another member state. By this means, the Commission will take over control of the civil servants in the different member states.

They will be paid salaries by the member states, housed in government buildings paid for by the member states, and will use facilities provided by, and paid for by member state governments. They will work on competition issues,

but not for the member states which finance them. Instead, they will be part of the 'network' working for the Commission, implementing Community law.

Nevertheless, the two proposals - one on aviation, the other on competition would not necessary have signified anything as profound as a 'revolution' but for the third event, Prodi's speech. In it, the underlying thinking behind the two legislative proposals was laid bare, demonstrating that neither was a 'flash in the pan'.

In the first instance, what Prodi is planning is the greater use of regulations as opposed to directives. It was, therefore, no coincidence that the two proposals were in the form of regulations. The significance, of course, is that directives must be transposed into the national laws of each member states before they take effect while the regulations take effect the moment they are 'done' at Brussels.

While the transposition process at least requires input from the legislatures and parliaments of the member states, the regulation process completely sidelines both, as EU regulations do not require the assent of either. The Commission is taking over the reins of the legislative process, making our parliament even more redundant.

As to enforcement, this goes hand-in-hand with 'cooperation'. As with the competition proposal, enforcement authorities in each of the member states are to be re-orientated so that they no longer work for their employing nations but act as part of a 'network', directly under the control of the Commission, to whom they become responsible.

And then there are the EU regulatory agencies. These are to become an increasing feature of EU activity, with their operating statutes set out in EU legislation. They will be responsible to Brussels; member states will have no direct control over their activities, they cannot overturn their decisions and neither can they ignore their rulings. The plan is that the bulk of regulatory affairs will be managed by these organisations. Altogether, this is indeed 'the gradual integration of national systems'.

Needless to say, we will see no outward change: we will continue to see British officials working in British offices, using the headed paper of their respective ministries, but they will be working for Brussels. Our own government will be progressively turned into an impotent onlooker, its only role being to pay the bills.

And this is the final irony and the cleverness of this 'revolution'. With the 'network' system, the EU gets to increase its control over member states without increasing its own budget or staff, maintaining the fiction that the Commission is a tiny civil service with an establishment of less than a London borough, working on a shoestring, while the agencies, of course, will be self-funding, living off the fees charged from applying Community law.

The take-over is on its way - and nobody noticed.