Richard North, 29/12/2017  

Following on from yesterday's piece, in this post-Christmas period, we are having to come to terms with the probability that the post-transition outcome for Brexit will be a basic free trade agreement. And, in that event, there will be significant damage to the UK economy. The only uncertainty is how bad the damage will be.

But what we also need to bear in mind is that withdrawal from the EU is only the first stage of a long, drawn-out process, with the potential to last many decades. And while Mrs May seems to intent on doing things the hard way, this is not necessarily the end of the world. Just because the first phase is less than optimal, this does not mean that the whole process has to be a disaster.

When we look at Flexcit, we can recall that this plan comprised six phases, which only the first phase directly concerned with withdrawal. And while we went for the least-worst option in the first phase, that fact that Mrs May has chosen badly need not stop us pursuing other steps.

Second on our list is our strategy for dealing with immigration. And since immigration is one of the reasons why the referendum was triggered, a post-Brexit policy is a logical and necessary development.

But then, in our plan, the crucial stage came next, using the structures of UNECE progressively to take over the management Single Market, breaking away from the grip of Brussels and turning it into a genuine pan-European operation.

Not enough has been made of this and too many people, from a position of ignorance, are ready to jeer when the issue is raised. But few of these people realise that this organisation pre-dated the Coal and Steel Community by three years.

The concept was endorsed by Winston Churchill who argued for the United Nations to be the "paramount authority" in world affairs, but with regional bodies such as UNECE as part of the structure.

Currently, UNECE has 56 members, including most continental European countries, Canada, the Central Asian republics, Israel and the USA. Its key objective is to foster economic integration at sub-regional and regional level and it is now responsible, inter for most of the technical standardisation of transport, including docks, railways and road networks.

With the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), it administers pollution and climate change issues, and hosts five environmental conventions covering issues ranging from transboundary air pollution to the Aarhus Convention. Its remit includes "sustainable housing" and agricultural quality standards. It is also a key body in the development of the global harmonised system (GHS) for the classification and labelling of chemicals.

Of great relevance here, the UNECE Transport Division provides a secretariat for the World Forum for the Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29), establishing a regulatory framework for vehicle safety and environmental impact.

Its work is based on two agreements, made in 1958 and 1998, the totality creating a legal framework whereby participating countries agree type approvals for vehicles and components. This is the basic legislation which permits vehicles to be used on the roads, without which they cannot be traded – internally or across borders – and which permits the sale of safety-critical spare parts.

Furthermore, the activities of UNECE in relation to standards harmonisation are by no means confined to vehicle manufacturing. In the agricultural sector, the EU has made great play of abolishing 26 of the 36 specific marketing standards for fruit and vegetables, including the so-called "straight cucumber directive". However, replacement regulations require produce to meet what are known as "general marketing standards".

These are not specified in detail by the EU, but products are deemed to comply if they conform to relevant UNECE standards. In other words, the EU has not abandoned detailed marketing standards at all. It has simply bumped them up to UNECE which has become the official standards-setting body, having even published its own cucumber specification.

The activities in the transport and agricultural sectors, plus activities in other sectors such as air and water pollution, indicate that UNECE is a body with considerable regulatory breadth.

That it could be expanded to manage a Europe-wide single market, taking over from the sub-regional European Union, is not an unreasonable proposition. Creating an entirely new organisation might be considered reinventing the wheel. Logic suggests that a better option is to build on what already exists.

Working within the aegis of the WTO's TBT Agreement, UNECE could thus be equipped to coordinate the production of single market instruments for the whole of continental Europe, then administering the functioning of the market. It would replace the EU as the dominant body, thereby involving all European countries in the decision-making process, not just EU Member States.

In this respect, UNECE has been developing and continues to develop an "International Model" of regulation, through its WP.6 Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardisation Policies.

WP.6 calls itself a forum for dialogue among regulators and policy makers, where a wide range of issues is discussed, including technical regulations, standardisation, conformity assessment, metrology, market surveillance and risk management.

It makes recommendations that promote regulatory policies to protect the health and safety of consumers and workers, and preserve our natural environment, without creating unnecessary barriers to trade and investment. While they are non-binding, they are widely implemented in UNECE member states and beyond.

The point, and the one missed by the detractors, is that UNECE has already developed considerably since its inception, despite the existence of the EU and its precursors – and it is continuing to develop and expand its reach. In other words, it already exists and is already assuming functions currently managed by Brussels as part of the Single Market.

Without any further political developments, therefore, it will over the decades to come continue to expand its scope, gradually taking more responsibilities from Brussels. It thus already presents an opportunity for an independent UK to encourage that process and speed it up. The UK would not have to invent something new, or go against the grain. It would simply work with an organisation that already exists, without changing the direction of travel.

The other point of equal importance is that the UK cannot accept over the long term a subordinate position where Brussels makes the rules and we simply conform, with no input into their creation.

But then, even under any conceivable worst-case scenario, that is not going to happen. As we have been writing for so long, the process of globalisation is progressively moving the process of rule-making away from regional integration organisations such as the EU, and towards global bodies.

UNECE, at regional level, represents the European arm of the globalisation process, part of a global collective that already formulates more than 80 percent of the trading rules adopted into the Single Market acquis.

What has been missing from the Brexit debate is any recognition that, in leaving the EU, we are not stopping and cannot abandon the process of European economic integration. We are part of that process and have to stay part of it. The Brexit mission was to extract us from European political integration – not to isolate us from the European economy.

Like it or not, UNECE is at the cusp of the economic integration process. We cannot ignore it. We are already part of it and we have to have work with it, intensifying our footprint, if we are to maximise the benefits of Brexit.

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