Red tape revolution? Not at Barroso s bureaucracy factory

Article by John Blundell in The Business

I feel I ought to applaud the announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the Portuguese President of the European Commission, that he is planning to scrap a raft of fatuous or redundant EU directives. It would be churlish to do otherwise. However, as we shall see, it would be a mistake to rejoice too much.

When taken at face value, the claims from Brussels sound like a reversal of the core assumptions upon which the European Commission operates. Previously it had taken as axiomatic that all regulations imposed across national boundaries create a conformity which enhances the liberalisation of trade. It is a fallacy but one that legitimises the thousands of Brussels jobs working out these rules and trying to make sure they are enforced, as well as the hundreds of thousands busy complying with them.

The commission has announced a list of 68 legislative proposals which it plans to withdraw or amend; however, 183 proposals were reviewed so 115 survived unscathed, which shows how limited the proposals really are. Barroso also promises to cull the 80,000-page law book of the European Union (EU) to a more modest 50,000; somehow I don’t believe him.

It is nevertheless my belief that Barroso, our supreme bureaucrat, has undergone something of an intellectual conversion over the past few decades. As a young man he was – not surprisingly, given how conformist and conventional the young tend to be – a socialist. We learn he has mellowed and is now an advocate of plural democracy and open markets.

Portugal, his home, has blossomed since the fall of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in 1968 and the subsequent relaxation of the fascist ideals of autarchy and state direction. For Portugal, accession to the European Union (EU) was an opening to the world. For Britain, however, it has been a closing.

The commission’s declared plan to start reducing the 80,000 pages of petty rules that are its statute book has, comically, provoked members of the European Parliament to voice opposition to the moves. Josep Borrell, President of the European Parliament, has questioned whether the commission has the authority to withdraw legislation which has already gone before the parliament. Procedurally, he may have a point but it gives us a glimpse that the so-called European Parliament has minimal, perhaps zero, control of the commission. The British Parliament is mute and nods through every new directive too. Have we ever heard of the Commons trying to countermand a Brussels directive ? Westminster is merely a provincial assembly now.

Le Figaro, the French newspaper, reports that the exercise is “largely cosmetic”. It says the majority of the proposals are already obsolete; for example, 22 concern the association agreements signed with the 10 new EU member states, which became defunct when the countries joined last year. Some others have been adopted through other legislative channels, and further ones on the list will only have the most controversial aspects removed.

Our BBC was more gullible. It trumpeted the announcements as a real “change of gear”. It isn’t. It is business as usual in the bureaucracy factory. What I think we may agree is that there has been a change in the intellectual climate. Who believes still that the commission can “regulate” us into prosperity with a subsidy here and a regulation there ? It may be un-sayable yet in some quarters but the reason the once poweful German, French and Italian economies are now stalling is the slow strangulation of their commerce by the constant drizzle of new rules, mostly from Brussels. We can only trade into prosperity with markets free, taxes low and regulations relaxed.

If this is all too abstract here is an example of a rule in dispute. The