Light at the end of the EU tunnel

7 Apr 16
European rules have restricted the UK’s lawmakers to such an extent that leaving the EU will be like emerging from the dark

Much has been written about the big questions concerning whether we should leave or remain in the EU, including sovereignty, the alternatives to the existing customs-union membership of the single market and how leaving the EU would affect the UK’s place in the world.

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It is easy to overlook the sheer extent to which EU membership affects public policy across the board in the UK. If Whitehall is freed of these constraints, it will enjoy a revolution in new policy and creativity in government at all levels.

As justice secretary Michael Gove has said: “Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules.’ I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.”

You may remember, for example, Tony Blair as prime minister insisting that foreign criminals should be deported “automatically”. It never happened. More recently, Gove said that the home secretary pleads with him not to empty our prisons of foreign EU nationals because, as soon as an individual is deported, even if they are a convicted criminal, they can come straight back to the UK because of the laws of freedom of movement (from which we have no opt-out).

During the 2010 parliament, once it was clear that there might be a referendum on the EU, the public administration select committee (as the committee I chair was then called) considered how we should produce a report assessing the impact of EU membership on government policy. We failed. The EU has permeated public policy to such an extent – in every department of state, in the devolved legislatures and in local government – that we found the task too daunting.

The House of Commons library estimates that some 60% of UK law now emanates from the EU. The increased impact of the EU was most striking for ministers who had served in the previous Conservative government. The new treaties that followed Maastricht (Nice, Amsterdam and then Lisbon) along with the Human Rights Act, have had a cumulative effect. They are paralysing initiative, creativity and accountability in Whitehall.

Take the so-called ‘tampon tax’, about which there was a major row in parliament last year. MPs from all parties got behind the campaign to get rid of VAT on sanitary products, which amounts to a tax on being female, but the UK has lived for years in the bizarre situation where the European Commission has deemed these items to be ‘luxury goods’ on which EU states are required to charge VAT of at least 5%. Despite a cross-party outcry, UK ministers cannot propose to change this.

For the same reason, parliament is not allowed to remove VAT on home insulation or solar panels, even though the government is spending billions on subsidising people to help achieve a low carbon economy. (At the same time, the EU also applies punitive tariffs on Chinese imports of solar panels to protect the German solar panel industry.) Everyone agrees we need to tackle fuel poverty – the last Labour government wanted to abolish VAT on domestic fuel. However, it is not permitted for the UK to lower VAT below the ‘reduced rate’ of 5%.

European rules have restricted the UK’s lawmakers to such an extent that leaving the EU will be like emerging from the dark


From fisheries and farming to financial regulation in the City, the all-enveloping nature of the ever-growing body of EU directives, regulations and court rulings quietly presses down on almost every walk of life.

Fishermen are still throwing by-catch back into the sea, as part of the Common Fisheries Policy described by William Hague as an economic, environmental and social disaster for the UK. The development of farming is being retarded by the EU’s anti- science attitude, so EU crop yields are now falling behind those in other countries such as the US and New Zealand. Instead of respecting scientific advice, the EU sacked Professor Anne Glover, its (British) chief scientific adviser, in November 2014. In four out of the five times the chancellor has challenged financial regulations in the European Court of Justice, he has lost.

Part of the problem is the way EU laws are made. EU regulation is not an end in itself. As Peter Mandelson said when EU trade commissioner: “It is the basic rules of the single market which have allowed European integration to progress in a wide variety
of areas, not only economic, but social and environmental too ... In short, no single market, no European project and no Europe puissance.”

The pretext of EU regulation may be the ‘level playing field’ but it results in one that tends to protect established industries at the cost of new and innovative ones. The EU legislative process is dominated by ‘comitology’ – a network of obscure committees. This process is good at reconciling dominant vested interests, but at the expense of minority interests and innovative entrants, like Dyson vacuum cleaners.

The UK is left with unsatisfactory rules forced through by qualified majority voting. Even opt-outs agreed at political level are often set aside by the EU legal system, with the single market cited as the main pretext. That is the problem with the so-called Cameron deal. It can always be overruled by the European Court, so amounts to no substantive change at all.

Once outside the EU, we will take back control over our laws and £20bn per year of public spending. Like prisoners released from the dark, ministers and officials will find themselves blinking in the sunlight of new freedoms and responsibilities, able to make decisions about matters that the system has all but forgotten.

Even if we continue to fund all the EU spending in the UK, we will still have some £10bn of spare cash in hand every year. This, in turn, will bring new demands for Whitehall to take responsibility for what happens, instead of just blaming the EU.


  • Bernard Jenkin
    Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee. He is a member of the board of Vote Leave, which is campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union. Twitter: @bernardjenkin

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