A mismanaged relationship

For an institution which has devoted so much of the past 18 months to debating the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Community, the House of Commons has done surprisingly little to consider what role it might play in influencing the EC's legislative process. Few EC proposals receive anything but the most superficial scrutiny in its committees, and it is a rarity indeed to have them debated by the Commons. MPs have done little over the years to demand improvements in the quality of information provided by Government Departments on the implications of EC proposals, and it is commonplace for Ministers to escape quite unscathed on the few occasions when they are called to explain the Government's strategy and successes in EC negotiations.

Those, with one or two embellishments from our own resources, are among the conclusions of a review commissioned by the President of the Board of Trade on the implementation and enforcement of EC law in the UK (see pp 19-21 ). The report will make disappointing reading for businesses which have been complaining that they are getting a raw deal because the UK implements and enforces EC rules rigorously where other Member States do not. The allegations, the scrutiny team concluded, were either over-stated or pure fiction and folklore.

But perhaps the report's most telling observations on the UK's relationship with the EC concern its approach to negotiations on legislative proposals. On many occasions, it says, officials have been given inflexible negotiating positions by Ministers which have marginalised the UK. Relationships have been soured. Opportunities to secure concessions have been missed. And the subtleties of negotiation in Brussels have not been sufficiently appreciated by Ministers.

The implications for the UK's role in shaping the future of the Community's environmental policy should not be overlooked. With the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, many more environmental proposals will be open to agreement by qualified majority vote. And it is precisely when this procedure has applied in the past that the inflexibility in the UK's approach has tended to work against its own self-interest.

Living successfully with others requires a capacity for compromise. The single-minded pursuit of doctrines, on the other hand, is a sure way to destroy a community. So perhaps, as a start, the Government might reconsider whether it is right to be invoking the doctrine of subsidiarity in its attempts to get the proposed EC Directive on landfills watered down into insignificance (see pp 42-43 ) - and whether those attempts might end up with the UK being out-manoeuvred and out-voted.

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