Hold your nose and vote remain ... then get the rats to leave the sinking ship before saving it

I been asked to come off the fence and state my views on the referendum and reasoning. The most recent Institute of Directors survey indicated that 75% of respondents felt the EU was in serious trouble, possibly even terminal decay, because of over-regulation. I agree. But leaving a sinking ship on life rafts whose design is in the hands of the current “squabble” (as in collective noun) of Brexiteers is an even less credible option.

In March my London Business School class (MSc 06, 1971 – 3) debated Brexit over lunch, with a straw poll before and after. Having spent over twenty years trying, not very successfully, to help make a reality of the Digital Single Market I was tempted to give up and vote leave. By the end of lunch I was persuaded of the strategy summarised in the headline above: “Hold your nose, vote remain … then work with allies across the EU to make those holding up long overdue reforms, in Westminster and Whitehall not just Brussels, wish we had left”.

Much of the most crass and egregious regulation has been inspired by UK lobbyists working to protect big business interests against smaller competitors, with UK implementation subsequently gold plated by Whitehall and wafted through Westminster will little or no scrutiny. Perhaps the most extreme example was the Animal Welfare Directive which required commercial slaughterhouses to employ some-one who had been on a fairly basic animal husbandry course and make them responsible for daily checks. In the UK this was interpreted as a requirement for detailed daily inspection by qualified on-site Vets. The overhead costs led to a situation where almost all animals passed through four super-abbattoirs on their way to a similar number of supermarket chains. This led to animals moving round the country at an unprecedented rate and the most serious Foot and Mouth outbreak the UK has ever seen. Only now are we seeing a resurgence of small, even mobile, slaughterhouses serving specialist butchers and restaurants, reducing the need to ship live animals.

We can see a similar nonsenses in the on-line world with policy made by that relatively small cadre of lobbyists in Brussels who are willing and able to spend time suggesting and responding to initiatives and consultations. That is our fault. As Secretary General of EURIM I had an open door to both Commission and Parliament whenever I could persuade the members to lift their sights from Westminster and visit Brussels. Our sporadic attempts to organise balanced inputs (users  and suppliers) were surprisingly successful, given our tiny budgets. An example was when, shortly after our re-launch in 1994 we were able to reset the entire telecoms agenda in favour of open markets and competition by providing evidence of the emerging diversity of the UK scene.

A consequence of our subsequent inability (and that of our peers) to get UK players interested in taking the Digital Single Market seriously is that most cross-border transactions within the EU are still routed via a handful of US-owned and controlled monopolists, usually under the laws of Delaware, with taxable profits re-transmitted through Ireland or Luxembourg to tax havens in the West Indies. Meanwhile action on enforcing the e-Commerce Directive requirement to provide physical contact details in the event of problems or complaints, remains permanently stalled. Instead we have gobbledegook tick box data protection and breach notification which would only make sense if it were easy to take civil action (including class action) against abuse. There are reasons why data protection is a State, not Federal responsibility, in the USA.

I have, however, no confidence that the Brexiteers have any strategy to do better. I might be more convinced were they to talk more about allying with Brazil, India and China to bring about global free trade, in place of protectionist treaties (like TTIP) which have US commercial and legal interests (with farmers and the film industry working alongside the cartel that runs the Internet) at their heart. But it looks as though they would prefer to see us to become a 51st State, but without the protections the other 50 states enjoy and also without a programme to strip away the unscrutinised Whitehall Gold Plating that has turned many reasonable directives into bureaucratic nightmares

In many respects I am an Americanophile but the America I admire is “50 odd sovereign states, some of them very odd, united mainly by contempt for the Federal Government“. I would personally have no objection to a United States of Europe, provided we could match that level of maturity. But it would require an equally robust attitude to curbing central institutions which claim more powers than the US Federal Government.

That is not what is currently on offer but is what I hope will emerge, instead of “ever closer union”, as the EU is forced to secure a democratic mandate in order to address its current multiple crises. In the mean time I would rather work to save the ship, after getting rid of the rats, than jump overboard with no sign of a credible life raft.

Which rats would I like to get rid off? Rather a lot – but the closeness of the Austrian Presidential election result has also caused me to ponder the views of an uncle who is hanging on to be able to vote two days after his hundredth birthday: “They are all lying crooks but we have now gone seventy years since the last big European war. Do you really want to risk another?”.

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