Red tape or red herring?

Jul 12 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

As Europe's politicians meeting in Wales deliver a new commitment to tackle the burden of regulation across the EU, who is really to blame for the growing mound of red tape?

At a meeting in Cardiff hosted by the UK Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson, industry and economics ministers underlined the need for a new competitive edge in Europe to face the challenges of the global economy.

Vice-President of the European Commission Gunther Verheugen set out a vision of rigorous testing of all new policies and proposals for regulation.

He told the meeting of ministers: "We must all be ready to say 'no' to new regulation in the EU where there is no strong case. Commission, member states and Parliament face a challenge - to adopt a fresh approach to deliver growth and jobs for our people.

"Too often in the past we have reached first for regulation and directive; in the future we must consider all the alternatives before we add further regulatory burdens on Europe's businesses.

"All new policies must be rigorously tested for the impact on our competitiveness."

But while national politicians have long been keen to blame Brussels for much of the unnecessary red tape that finds it way onto Europe's statute books, Verheugen also told the meeting that most tax, environment and employment legislation is generated by national governments.

Last week, John Hutton, Britain's 'deregulation minister' claimed that "more than 50 per cent of significant new regulations that impact on business in the UK now emanate from the EU".

But Verheugen responded by accusing the British government of creating much of the red tape through its own bureaucratic efforts and "gold-plating" EU regulations.

"The original EU directive on pesticides in food consists of 1,100 words. What has the UK made of it? A regulation of 27,000 words," Verheugen said.

"The Commission is willing to bring its own house in order, but if member states do not play ball, it will not help business a lot."

Verheugen claim is backed by a considerable body of independent research. Last year, a report by the European Movement has found that a mere 10 per cent of new regulations over the past five years have come from Brussels, contradicting the government's attempts to shift the blame for Britain's burgeoning mountain of red tape.

It found that civil servants in the UK provided an average of 2.6 implementing documents for each directive, compared with 1.0 in Germany and 0.9 in Portugal.

Meanwhile, the British government's own Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF) said that over-zealous interpretation of regulations is "a hidden menace" that is costing British businesses more than £100bn a year.

But perhaps the last word should go to former Europe Minister, Denis MacShane, who commissioned research from the House of Commons Library last year.

This revealed that over the past five financial years, only nine per cent of UK secondary legislation originated in Brussels.

According to MacShane, this demonstrated that the idea that half of Britain's red tape emanates from Brussels was a "well-established myth" Ė a statement that his current ministerial colleagues may want to conveniently forget, but that Gunther Verheugen would doubtless applaud.