By Tim Philpott
As part of the Take Back Control slogan, Vote Leave listed numerous things they wanted to take back control of, including money, borders and laws.
Conspicuously absent from this list, though probably only for syntax reasons, was taking back control of powers held by EU quangos.
The quango has had a rough history in the UK. Its key selling point, from inception, also been its main drawback: distance from the government machine and normal electoral processes. Its board of technocratic experts were able to carry on the task of assigning driving licenses, arbitrating banking or inspecting food standards, safe in the knowledge that their salaries were automatically paid and their positions secure, despite the rough and tumble of everyday party politics.
This apolitical nature has been the double edge that has led so many of the public becoming disillusioned with the whole idea. Now take this idea, up the budget by fifty million and increase the staff roster by a hundred, and you have the ‘euroquango’, created by the European Commission.
Given the Commission’s inherent lack of accountability many would think this a quite impressive feat of silo-creation – the euroquango is in many ways, a quango borne of a quango. And there are 53 of them, with a collective budget amounting to around €10.1 billion and employing over 15,000 people.
The euroquangos generally supersede national quangos in order to promote common EU rules and pursue integration and a convergence of governance of specific sectors. In many instances this is worthwhile, but in others not so much.
For a start, because of their aloofness from political or market accountability, quangos tend to form their own agendas alongside that of their official mission. This is magnified in euroquangos, where every decision is informed by the concept of ‘ever closer union’. In some extreme cases, consultations on new rules are botched or simply ignored before they become law.
Earlier this year EASA, the euroquango for air safety, decided that because of air traffic congestion over central Europe, it would mandate the switching of aircraft radio frequencies to a better type, the so-called 8.33kHz, to allow better allocation of radio space.
For the general aviation and recreational flying community in the UK, this caused uproar. Many general aviation aircraft in the UK (unlike in Central Europe) rarely cross the UK’s borders, let alone travel to the congested zone over Europe, so they don’t need precision radios. In addition, costs of upgrading are extreme, and within months of the announcement there was a shortage of supply. No less than 80 per cent of light aircraft run the risk of being grounded unless an extension or exemption is appealed for.
While this example is quite a niche one, it is a demonstrative example of the problems inherent when a euroquango assuming legal responsibility for the entire EU area, regardless of the divergent circumstances of the nations within it.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU now means that many of these euroquangos, which were of limited use to the UK already, threaten to increasingly act against the UK’s wider interests if we remain signed up to them. This will be particularly evident once power has been restored but regulatory divergence occurs.
Leaving offers an opportunity, not just to repatriate powers over certain areas to domestic bodies, but also to take things much further. Restoring some of these powers to central departments, to ministers beholden to a sovereign Parliament, and then devolving where appropriate to the regions and beyond, could be one of the biggest potential benefits of Brexit as yet unrealised.
However, that can only be achieved if the UK actively decides to administratively separate itself from the EU. The closer the UK is to the working parts of the machinery of EU governance, the more likely it is that our tie will get caught in the gears.
Recently, ConservativeHome explored the advantages of the UK reaching an augmented Most Favoured Nation (MFN) deal as a default, while aspiring to a free trade deal. Either end result will be badly stymied if Britain remains enmeshed with the budgets, political aspirations, and legal baggage of the euroquangos.
In a new paper for The Red Cell, I explore some of the background to this, including the duplication, staffing, and costs of the existing institutions, and then recommend dividing future levels of association into two types.
For a number of bodies of minimal relevance we might as well just follow their output online, and put their phone number on a post-it in the Whitehall fridge door; with a number of others, a more formal but still minimalist liaison mechanism seems more useful. As precedent shows the sort of issues that need to be covered legally in any deal, it’s even possible to generate an outline draft agreement.
There are two exceptions where we recommend a more engaged level of cooperation. One is nuclear collaboration, because a nuclear reactor which can’t jut be put on the back of a lorry in 2019 and because they are already semi-intergovernmental anyway. The ‘Euratomists’ were right to raise this point, but they focused on the wrong end of the stick. They also risked setting a far wider precedent (though that, in some cases, was probably precisely the point.)
The UK can’t disengage if we are paying into a central budget, so we must aim for an intergovernmental structure with payments based on the otherwise standard approach of ‘juste retour’ (fair share). It most certainly does not mean not talking to anyone, or encouraging barriers. It does though mean that, if we are to diverge in certain regulatory areas over time, we need to diverge on the oversight and advisory side too.
Happily, there are pre-existing models to follow: non-EU countries such as Ukraine and Israel are able to cooperate where it is mutually useful. We can do the same. As ConservativeHome’s MFN ‘study week’ showed, the UK is already legally and administratively compliant with the prerequisites of future cooperation with Brussels.
The operational mechanics of taking back control begins with understanding, and accepting, the how the EU works and the risks that arise from it. The hidden euroquangocracy forms a key part of that equation.
Just as we have nothing to fear from stepping away from the Customs Union and Single Market, so too should we move away with confidence from the backdoor administrative machines that feed them.