Blowing up the Bridge


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.  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.

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7 Responses to Blowing up the Bridge

  1. silverminer says:

    These are all artificially manufactured problems. If the State had no regulations on how cars (or anything else) were manufactured and simply left it to consumers to decide which was the superior vehicle (or whatever) there wouldn’t be a problem for politicians and regulators to argue about trying to solve. The regulations are only created in the first place to artificially give these people a role in life instead of doing something useful (like designing better cars for instance). Anyone who deliberately or negligently builds a death trap of a vehicle gets their backside handed to them by the courts with unlimited liability for all directors. That’s how a free society works.

  2. Ex-expat Colin says:

    And there I was believing from way back then that COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) had solved it all. That was aimed directly at cost and ease of anything related. Whether it achieved that is likely impossible to easily judge. Sounded good….but?

  3. Julia Gasper says:

    A brilliant article. Yes I like to watch old WW2 films during the Christmas season too, Just the thing when you come in from a brisk walk around the common and sit down in front of the fire with a tray of tea and Christmas cake.

  4. Mike Spilligan says:

    I agree with silverminer, but what else might you expect when you put x-thousand people in good quality offices in Brussels all with a little machine (replacing the pad and pencil) with plenty of time on their hands. They start thinking how they can stop someone actually doing something. They don’t prevent problems; in fact the problems breed like viruses and then interbreed with others and create more problems for whole departments to deal with and one could wish that they would attack the host body.
    A couple of years ago I wrote to my MP (E. Midlands, Tory) to ask “Exactly what problem is it that the EU is designed to solve for us?”, but needless to say his response avoided the question.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head! Both MEPs and bureaucrats in Brussels measure success by the number of “dossiers” they’ve got through the system. Their great incentive is to make more regulations. If you build a sausage factory, people will want to make more sausages. (But sausages do less damage than EU regulations).

      • Julia Gasper says:

        You’re dead right that excessive regulation is killing our economy. I know someone who used to rent out a cottage where the water came from a bore-hole. Nobody had ever got ill and the water tasted delicious, Then somebody – the Water Board? – brought in a regulation saying that you needed a special electric filter costing £3,500 or the place would be declared unfit for habitation, He installed it but then the running costs were so high that the tenant moved out! Nobody lives there now, It is an empty house,
        I bet the people who make the equipment lobbied for the law to be passed.

  5. silverminer says:

    Can we just go back to the old system, please? I mean the one where you could do whatever you liked so long as you didn’t cause any damage to the life, liberty or property of another human soul? You know, the Common Law and all that…no regulations, no permits, no licenses, just a jury of your peers and payment of damages and/or imprisonment if you’re found guilty. Oh, and gold and silver for money rather than these digital debt notes I’ve got in bank account. Was it really so bad? What the hell happened?!

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