It’s nearly Christmas, so the networks will no doubt be showing “Bridge on the River Kwai” again. It’s a Christmas tradition. The Festive Season wouldn’t be the same without it.
As British POW Lt-Col Nicholson works away in the valley, determined to prove to the Japanese that British soldiers can build the best bridge in the world, there’s a small group of commandos who’ve been parachuted into the wooded hills overlooking the river. They know that the British national interest will be served not by demonstrating superior bridge-building skills, but by blowing the damn thing up. The Japanese must not be allowed a railway supply route to support their war aims in Burma and India.
I’ve always seen a curious parallel between the film, and the position of British MEPs in Brussels. Our Lt-Col Nicholson tendency is typified by Tories like Malcolm Harbour (West Midlands). He describes himself as an engineer – he had a distinguished career in the car industry – and I imagine him coming into the office each morning, with Tigger-like enthusiasm, spanner in hand, ready to get down to the nuts and bolts of building the very best EU legislation he can. We Brits can show them how it’s done! And to be fair, in his own terms, he’s done a fine job. He’s the highly-respected Chairman of the Internal Market Committee, and he regards “The Single Market” as his finest achievement – while admitting that in many respects it’s still a work-in-progress, and is incomplete in many areas, notably energy and financial services.
We sceptics, on the other hand, are the commandos in the hills, looking down on Harbour’s construction project through our binoculars, and knowing that our job, in the national interest, is not to “build the European construction”, but rather to blow it up – or failing that, at least to get Britain out, and restore independence, self-determination and democracy – and prosperity – to our country.
This clash of ideologies blew up on Wednesday at a lunch debate of the “Kangaroo Group”, one of the parliament’s many “inter-groups”. This one is part good – pro-trade and open markets – but also part bad – committed hook-line-and-sinker to the EU model. I like to go along, partly to hear what’s going on, and partly to offer challenging and controversial alternative views (or to make trouble, as they might see it – although generally they seem to welcome lively interventions). In this case, Malcolm was telling us about developments in the Single Market, and in his committee, and outlining his hopes for the future. His speech had a somewhat valedictory tone, since he has decided not to stand again next year.
I suggested to him that the Single Market, by which he (and the Tories generally) set so much store is in fact little more than a free trade area, with the addition of excessive and onerous layers of damaging regulation. Indeed it’s worse than that. It’s not a free trade area at all – it’s an old-fashioned Customs Union, harking back to Bismarck’s 19th Century Zollverein. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zollverein The difference may sound dry and technical, but any economist will tell you that the Free Trade Area is a better model for trade than the Customs Union (a point which President Putin of Russia should perhaps note). Nothing annoys Malcolm more than to hear aspersions cast on his pet project, and he became predictably incensed – very nearly as red as Ed Balls at the Autumn Statement in Westminster. I suppose that none of us likes to hear his life’s work disparaged.
Of course Malcolm has a point, of sorts. The important thing is to ensure genuine free flows of goods within the market area. An example from his own industry: if you’re a car manufacturer in the UK and you want components from Germany, say, the issue is not whether there’s a duty barrier. The issue is whether there are different statutory regulations and specifications which mean that a German spark-plug doesn’t match UK specs. It would be hugely inefficient for the German manufacturer to have to make several marginally different spark plugs to suit different countries. Harbour made this point with wonderful derision, as though the idea might be something I’d never thought of. “These days we’re not concerned about import duties, we’re concerned about non-tariff barriers”. Top marks, Malcolm, for spotting what John Cleese called “The bleedin’ obvious”.
But Malcolm rather blew a hole in his own case, if he had but noticed it. He spoke with great warmth and hope about the forthcoming negotiations for what we’re calling TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or more shortly, the EU/US trade deal. Clearly there is no question of the EU and US jointly agreeing some superior level of rule-making to which both sides would be subject. No. That would be politically unacceptable on either side. What we shall be looking for is mutual recognition. The US spec may not precisely match the EU spec. But both specs will have been designed with broadly the same objectives – in the automotive case, safety, efficiency, low emissions and so on – so maybe at a pinch the Europeans can accept goods that meet the US spec, and vice-versa.
Clearly there will be a lot of detail to sort out, but that’s the way to go. It makes sense and it offers big trade benefits to both sides. It’s a win-win approach.
But hang on a minute. If it’s self-evident that a supra-national regulatory structure for the US and the EU would be wholly unacceptable in political terms, why doesn’t Malcolm agree that it is equally unacceptable to have supra-national regulatory structures, with all their anti-democratic and over-regulatory baggage, in place over the UK and Germany (for example)? If mutual recognition is the obvious and inevitable solution for transatlantic trade, why isn’t it the obvious solution for cross-Channel trade as well? Well why not? I don’t know. You’d better ask Malcolm.