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Last year, in the run-up to the referendum, Michael Gove, then Justice Secretary, complained of a tidal wave of European legislation that was swamping Britain. It was impossible, he said, for ministers to make decisions because the laws that determined just about everything – the example he gave was the maximum size for a can of olives – were fixed, immutably, in Brussels. It was impossible, he went on, for the Government to lower VAT because, again, the rate was determined by the European Commission.
“Every single day,” said Gove, “every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’.”
Bear in mind, Gove – a leading member of Vote Leave – was Education Secretary before moving to Justice. The EU plays virtually no part in education policy. Apart from the organisation of academic and student exchange schemes (both of benefit to Britain), it is a matter reserved to member states. Similarly, in the Justice sphere, the EU court only intervenes in areas within its competence, mainly trade, market regulation and interpretation of the treaties, leaving criminal, family and civil law to Westminster and the UK judiciary.
Even human rights legislation is not determined by the EU, but by the European Convention on Human Rights – the latter a body of law largely drafted by the future Lord Chancellor David Maxwell-Fyfe (Lord Kilmuir) and steered through the Council of Europe in 1950 by, among others, Harold Macmillan and Ernest Bevin. Britain was the first country to sign up to the Convention that we now consider a foreign imposition.
It’s the same with money. The UK is no more a part of the Eurozone than it is of the Schengen Agreement on open borders. It sets its own income tax and its own corporation tax. It also, contrary to what Gove said on the matter, levies its own VAT rate (the Commission set 15 per cent as the base rate; Britain, unilaterally, chose to increase this to 20 per cent.) And while the European Banking Authority, currently based in London, has the power to intervene in the event of catastrophic banking failures, the effective regulator for the UK, with the power to set interest rates, remains the Bank of England.
“It is hard,” said Gove, “to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country.”
Rubbish. Even if the referendum, for most voters, had been about sovereignty, not immigration, it would still be rubbish.
The reality is that most of the news that dominates Britain’s domestic agenda has to do with disputes within British politics and society. The NHS, police numbers, prisons, income inequality, social care, gay rights, pensions, student loans, housing, roads and railways, airports, crime, unemployment, euthanasia, Grenfell Tower: you name it, it’s Westminster that is responsible and makes the big decisions. The same applies to foreign policy, defence and going to war. Even immigration, given the fact that more than half of all new arrivals over the last 20 years came from outside the EU, has been in large part a domestic choice.
But never mind. Change is in the air. Under the wise leadership of Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, the Conservatives appear to have decided that they will work with Europe, not against it, in future Brexit negotiations. A three-year transition period, starting in March 2019, is emerging as settled policy, to include continued immigration at more or less existing levels. There is even talk of a financial sweetener of as much as £50 billion to take account of the “divorce” bill, though not, as yet, of membership of the European Economic Area. Such realism, if confirmed, will be welcomed across Europe and can only boost the chances of a future partnership that allows both sides to get most, if not all, of what they want.
We got off to a wretched start in our talks with Brussels. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But is it too much to hope that in the new climate of opinion we are see starting to form, Leave and Remain can put their differences aside and work towards building a better Britain alongside our European friends? The Tories are shifting; Labour should follow suit. In the meantime, the Government has 101 decisions to make over the lifetime of this parliament that have no connection to Brexit. Many of these decisions need to be agreed in the course of the next 12 months. Ministers, including Michael Gove, should buckle down and get on with the job in hand.