Deflecting Blame: Britain, Bureaucracy & the EU

So much of the agitation for a Leave vote in June seems to be in the fond (as in, “absurd, foolish“) belief by some that a Brexit would return us to a mythic age of independence and freedom from bureaucracy. Well, here’s some news for them: they simply don’t understand either the modern world or the very British ability to bureaucratise a good idea into something completely untenable and then blame it on someone else. Here, the EU is an appartchik’s godsend: the ability to create pointless process that does nothing but perpetuate the salaries of those involved and then be able to duck responsibility by saying, “It’s the EU’s fault“. No, in this case it isn’t and we really need to remind ourselves that there’s a tolerable correlation between those parts of the world known for overweening bureaucracy and those bits of it that used to be coloured pink.

That’s not to say that the EU doesn’t create some pretty egregious bureaucracy of its own: anyone who’s spent time putting together a research collaboration under one of the Framework programs will appreciate that, and at a visceral level.

The real problems though come from two directions: firstly, when the UK creates a layer of process and/or legislation which fails to effectively map an EU directive or treaty onto the British legal system and its precedent-driven constitution.  Secondly, we too often fail to design a process that implements a commitment in a way that meets the intent of the legislation, is effective for our needs and which imposes the minimum of overhead for the maximum benefit.

In the first camp sits the European Convention on Human Rights, although the Leave campaign should note that it is NOT a creation of the EU and in fact predates it: the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act that is supposed to translate the ECHR into a national context is content and context-free: it’s entire wording simply repeats the mantra that it holistically adopts the corresponding element of the ECHR. Such an apparently unconsidered method of adoption however creates multiple points of potential conflict with UK laws, each of which then needs to be tested through all levels of the courts, hence the time it’s taken to work cases through the system.

The second example here is closer to home, where I lead our local community-based broadband project. Here we’ve become bogged down in procurement red tape that the government agencies we’re dealing with blame on “EU bureaucracy“. So of course we called the relevant EU Commissioner, who passed it to his office. They got back to us in about a week with three perfectly clear paragraphs on what exemptions applied to an EU ‘state aid’ procurement such as ours. We qualified for all of them: our problem is that the UK appears to have created a process, in this case around procurement, that is prescriptive, ill-designed  and which does not effectively implement the exception model. So we’ve (so far) been stuck in an expensive and debilitating hole.

There does appear to be no good idea that that the British cannot make into a very very bad one through unconsidered and self-interested process-building. This is most emphatically NOT an EU problem.

Whilst pondering this state of affairs and in conversation with an EU Commissioner, I suggested that the British seem to be uniquely bad at understanding how to work the European system (“Playing the game” was the phrase I used). He was too polite to agree directly, but did grin hugely.

On then relating that story to a senior and very experienced British politician, he pointed out that, whilst most countries send their best and brightest civil servants to Europe, a Brussels posting is regarded, in much of the UK civil service,  as the ultimate rebuke if you’ve really screwed up. That’s probably a tad unfair and hyperbolic but it does illustrate the British failure to fully engage with the EU.

It doesn’t take much analysis then to realise that the ‘bureaucracy’ part of the EU argument is actually very much of our own making and that a Brexit would even further increase our self-imposed levels of red tape, as we of necessity replaced a single set of relationships – however badly we do them – with bilateral relationships with a gazillion other countries. And that would be a step forward how, precisely?

Coming back though to that hankering for the mythic age of independent simplicity, all I can say is, “Get over it“: the modern world is a complex and uncertain place; there is nowhere to retreat to and the only thing that actually moves the whole thing on is continual engagement and leadership – this isn’t a merry-go-round that our little island can step off and retreat into insular xenophobia. Trying to do that would  put us into the same situation as another notable  independent economy: no, not Norway but  another “Nor”: North Korea.

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