Choked by Brussels? Angered by energy-saving? Who are the Brexiteers trying to kid?

James Murray
Choked by Brussels? Angered by energy-saving? Who are the Brexiteers trying to kid?

The latest attack on European environmental regulations is laughable, but it demands a serious response from government and business

Where to start? The Telegraph's new campaign to 'cut EU red tape' is so badly flawed, such a blatant confection of half-truths, evidence-free assertions, and inconsequential proposals, that it is hard to know where to begin.

The temptation to give the entire thing a right good Fisking is pronounced, but highlighting how a government review concluded the Habitats Directive had a negligible impact on developers or making the point that it might be advisable to protect species before they are critically endangered is as futile as noting how a vacuum cleaner's suction has little to do with its power rating or demanding evidence to back up unsourced claims that consumers are "angered" by the phasing out of inefficient lightbulbs. What makes you really apoplectic? Terrorism, poverty, queue-jumping, but, most of all, lightbulbs.

However, laughable as The Telegraph's campaign is it could have extremely serious implications for the UK economy as a whole and the green economy in particular. As one diplomat told the Guardian today, "it is not possible to overestimate the threat the UK press poses to reaching a deal". It is easy to see how the Brexit press and its allies on the extreme fringe of the Vote Leave campaign are desperate to make minor regulatory issues a red line in any negotiations, effectively bouncing the UK out of its biggest market and torching decades of largely effective environmental regulation in the process. As such The Telegraph's campaign demands a robust response from business leaders and those Ministers who are clinging to the once defining Conservative belief that the national interest is best served by economic stability, functioning markets, and an innate sense of fair play.

The first thing to note is the directives in the firing line are disproportionately environmental in nature. Four of the six regulations branded 'red tape' by The Telegraph are environmental, while The Sun's similar effort last year listed seven environmental rules out of 10 regulations it wanted to see axed.

As Greenpeace's Doug Parr noted this morning, there is a democratic deficit implicit in these attacks given the environment was barely discussed during the referendum campaign and yet now we are told one of the primary "opportunities" offered by Brexit is the freedom to tear up environmental protections that polls show a vast majority of the public value and support.

However, while the constituency willing to launch these attacks is obvious - climate sceptic MPs, libertarian ideologues, and the handful of businesses that would benefit from weak regulation - the constituency capable of defending these crucial protections is still failing to properly mobilise.

The reality is that far from being 'red tape' the bulk of the regulations cited as examples of Brussels' over-reach are firmly in the UK national interest and have been broadly backed by successive British governments (it cannot be said often enough that 'hated' EU policies are approved by British MEPs through the European Parliament and UK governments through the European Council).

Let's take just two examples, product energy efficiency standards and EU renewable energy goals.

The Brexit press have repeatedly attacked rules to curb energy use in appliances such as vacuum cleaners and fridges and raged at the phasing out of incandescent lightbulbs. But leaving aside the valid question as to whether anyone really cares outside of a right wing newspaper's editorial conference - are households really drowning in dust bunnies because their vacuum cleaners waste less energy? - these rules have delivered massive benefits. As the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) noted earlier this month, the reason domestic energy bills have fallen in recent years, contrary to many media reports slamming 'green levies', is that product standards have led to a sharp reduction in UK energy use. EU regulations are saving households hundreds of pounds a year.

Moreover, product standards, be they for household appliances or vehicle fuel efficiency, are often a mechanism for driving innovation and accelerating technology trends that were happening anyway. The market for LED lighting was already growing fast because of the massive cost savings and improvements in performance the technology offers, but phasing out incandescent lightbulbs that waste 95 per cent of their energy helped speed up that trend. All around the world standards stimulate product development and reward companies that are willing to invest in R&D by stopping free-riders flooding markets with low quality products.

Some firms may benefit from these standards being torn up, but the vast majority of businesses and consumers would lose out as the pace of innovation would slow and energy costs would rise.

The same is true in the clean energy sector. The Telegraph today again attacked renewable energy targets, which it accuses of pushing up energy bills. But while it can be argued the UK could meet its own domestic climate change targets without recourse to renewable energy, what the renewables targets have done across Europe is stimulate a market that is now delivering the lowest cost forms of new energy capacity through onshore wind and solar developments. The long term benefits to the UK, the EU, and the planet as a whole will be immense. This is 'red tape' that comes with a massive upside.  

Inevitably, just like domestic policies, there are flaws to be found in much EU regulation. There is no doubt many of the directives in the Brexiteers' sights could be improved or more effectively tailored for different member states' unique circumstances. But while taking a pan-European approach may result in targets and regulations that are a bit of a blunt instrument, they also stop competitors free-riding by despoiling the environment or delaying the initial upfront investment required to deliver a clean and modern energy system.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with this latest war on EU regulation, a challenge completely glossed over by the coalition calling for a tearing up of existing rules and directives: the EU is simply not going to sign a UK trade deal that retains the benefits of the single market without the retention of the vast majority of shared regulations. The price to pay for tariff-free entry to the UK's largest market is a commitment to play by the rules of that market, whether they cover energy efficiency, clean power, or bendy bananas.

The most striking thing about The Telegraph's campaign is how it inadvertently highlights how small that price is. The leading minds behind the campaign to leave the EU got together and the most egregious examples of Brussels regulations "choking Britain" they could find are rules to stop exploitative working practices, protections for newts, energy efficiency standards that save households money, target for renewable energy technologies that an overwhelming majority of the public are keen on, and food quality standards for bananas. The Eurosceptics are big, it's the regulatory scare-mongering that got small.

Or, as the journalist Ian Dunt rather more succinctly put it this morning:

The Brexiteers contention is the UK economy is being "choked" by the "shackles of Brussels" and the cloying embrace of green regulation. But where is the evidence? Since 1990 when the push to build a greener and more sustainable economy began UK carbon emissions have fallen 36 per cent and the economy has grown almost 65 per cent. Since the UK joined the EU in 1973 GDP per capita has more than doubled, outperforming the US, Germany and France. Is The Telegraph's campaign seriously suggesting without EU regulation the apparently strangulated UK economy would suddenly be free to properly respire, surging ahead with growth rates of what? Four, five, six per cent a year? Who are they trying to kid? Why are they so desperate to talk down the UK of the last four decades?

The regulations that are now firmly in the firing line impose negligible costs on the UK, frequently deliver significant environmental and economic benefits, drive innovation and stop corporate free-riding while tackling epoch-shaping challenges such as climate change and energy insecurity. Any imperfections are more than outweighed by the fact compliance with these rules is an entirely justifiable requirement for tariff-free access to the world's largest single market. Sometimes, in life, you have to compromise in pursuit of shared goals. To do so is not a sign of weakness or a dilution of sovereignty. In fact, it is quite the opposite.  

The UK is in serious danger of harming its economy and delaying the roll out of cleaner and healthier technologies and business models, in an ideologically inspired frenzy to claw back control of regulations that we already influence and which have served the country pretty well. But, hey, at least we'll have 19th century lighting and misshapen bananas that, let's be honest, no one will want to buy.

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