Richard North, 31/07/2019  

Gravitating from his spot in The Times, Matt Ridley makes a guest appearance in the Telegraph to promote his vision of a deregulated Brexit that lets us enjoy the vast benefits of biotechnology.

In so doing, he's picking up on comments Johnson made from Downing Street about liberating "the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules", and developing "the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world".

According to Ridley's narrative, Britain was once the world leader in biotechnology for agriculture, but that all changed 20 years ago when the environmental movement led a successful campaign to scare people about it.

Then, says Ridley, the EU enthusiastically joined in the opposition to biotech crops, not by banning them but by strangling them in red tape. Since 2005, the EU has approved just one transgenic variety of crop for commercial use, a process that took 13 years, by which time the crop was outdated. Canada has approved 70 in that time.

Like with so many things, though, Ridley's grasp of the issues is somewhat fragile. As it happens, on this blog, we've occasionally covered what has turned out to be the long-running GMO soap opera, with key articles here, here, here, here, here and here.

Summing up the essence of the drama, it is possible to come away with a slightly different take, namely that we're dealing with a conflict between the European Commission and the Member States. As the regulator, the Commission has been keen to follow its own procedures and, left to itself, would have processed many more applications.

The story however, is that the majority of Member States have, for a variety of reasons, been opposed to the widespread use of GMOs. They have, therefore, been blocking the Commission's attempts to allow their use in European agriculture. In a very real sense, therefore, what we have been seeing is Member States exploiting the system to exert their own sovereignty.

Not least, sentiment has been influenced by the predatory activities of the pioneer developer, Monsanto, and its initial choice of a product which maximised the use of chemical inputs, as in Roundup-resistant rapeseed.

The odd man out, however, may well be the United Kingdom (although this has never been put to the test), with the likes of Ridley arguing that our EU membership has been holding us back. Therefore, along with his brother-in-law Owen Paterson, he sees Brexit releasing the chains.

Typically, though, to justify his expectation, Ridley builds a fictitious case based on a claim that the root of the EU's "Luddism" is that, in the Lisbon Treaty, the EU adopted an extreme version of the "precautionary principle". 

But, while indeed the treaty does require environment policy to be based on the precautionary principle, the Commission's interpretation goes way back to the year 2000, well before the Lisbon Treaty came into being. And, far from being extreme, its evaluation of the principle focuses on the management of risk and is a model of its kind.

But this is an old game Ridley is playing. Biotechnology is his Trojan Horse for a wider attack on EU regulation, citing what he calls a 2016 Business Europe survey which he says looked at the effect of EU regulation on innovation. It found, says Ridley, there were just two cases where regulation stimulated innovation, and many more where it had done harm by causing excessive precaution, legal uncertainty, high compliance costs, inconsistency between regulations and technology-prescriptive rules.

This report, however, is not by any means a comprehensive survey of the state of the art. The report is more of an evaluation of how the Commission could improve its regulation, citing various examples of where deficiencies have been observed.

The Business Europe report, therefore, is part of an ongoing dialogue from an organisation which is largely supportive of le projet and cannot be taken in the way Ridley intended.

But a hint of another agenda comes in an article in the Guardian, where Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, argues that Johnson's "right wing" group is seeking regulatory alignment with the United States. At the ideological heart of this group, he says, is Liz Truss, founder of the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, which is set on delivering the UK into Washington's pocket.

They have a plan to "unchain Britannia" by declaring war on the "bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation", but this Dearden declares is actually a plan to unchain big business. They believe it has suffered from masses of overregulation on the part of successive governments from Tony Blair to David Cameron.

In this paradigm, many Brexiteers have looked longingly across the Atlantic for decades, to an economy where business is supposedly free from the shackles of tax and regulation, which they see as a product of the European Union – an entity that competes with the Soviet Union for their disdain.

Brexit is seen as the opportunity to emulate that US model. And because modern trade deals are concerned less with tariffs, and more with how a country is allowed to regulate food standards, run public services and treat overseas investors, a trade deal with the US would be a powerful mechanism for transforming our economy.

Necessarily, therefore, the EU must be painted as the "bad guy", while the United States is seen as the model of a liberal economy, irrespective of the reality. Critics such as Dearden see Truss at one with Donald Trump’s administration, and argues that the content of a trade deal is preordained.

The US, he avers, wants Britain to allow food produced in enormous animal factories, pumped with steroids, hormones and antibiotics, into our markets. It wants us to accept even greater monopoly rights for big pharmaceutical corporations, meaning higher prices for medicines and more strain on the NHS.

It wants us to allow the Silicon Valley tech firms from Amazon to Facebook to Google to have greater power to use and abuse our data. And it wants to extend the rights of US corporations to enjoy "regulatory stability", even giving them the right to sue the British government in secret "corporate courts" for daring to do things such as introduce a sugar tax or pass a law to stop fracking.

This essentially left-wing or "progressive" view of improved trade relations with the United States is unlikely to gain much traction with the Tory right, but one does not have to buy into this world view to be troubled by the direction of travel emerging from the Johnson Administration.

Furthermore, despite having spent much of my working career criticising EU regulation, I do not find myself in sympathy with Matt Ridley. Alongside Christopher Booker, we found much wrong with regulation originating in the UK while Booker felt that many of the complaints about EU regulation were "trivial".

Nor were our complaints about EU regulation always directed at the nature of the law. Our greater concern was that economic and trade regulation was being misused as a mechanism for securing political integration. For the EU, regulation wasn't an end in itself, but a means to an end.

But when it comes to Brexit, we are where we are. Businesses are used to EU law and, for good or bad, have invested heavily in compliance. Thus, there is no benefit to be had from rapidly ditching the corpus of EU regulation, especially as that will hamper our trading arrangements with Member States.

While one could even concede that, in the longer-term, a pro-US regulatory agenda could be beneficial to the UK (although some US law is hardly better than the EU equivalents), what is not helpful to the economy is rapid change, and the uncertainty that goes with it.

In the final analysis, we favour the rebuilding of the Single Market as a truly European entity, but for the moment the national interest lies in regulatory stability and a carefully-managed transition. And that, it seems, are the very last things on offer from Johnson.

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