EU Referendum

Global governance: the wrong sort of elephant


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Thousands of favourite British garden plants and flowers could be banned from sale at garden centres under new EU proposals, proclaims the Mail on Sunday, warning us that the popular lavender Lavandula Hidcote, the highly scented iris Jane Phillips, the holly shrub known as Ilex Golden King and the pink star-shaped clematis Nelly Moser are among those at risk. 

This is all because – or so we are told – of a European Commission shake-up of plant legislation proposes that in future each plant variety must be given a detailed scientific description – as well as being listed on an official plant register. But the UK does not have an official register of plants and experts say it would be too expensive and take years to set up. As a result, says the Mail, unregistered plants could be removed from sale in garden centres and other shops.

But this is only the half of it. Once again we have a series of rules being proposed, with the EU in the front line as the visible drafting body. But, in fact, these rules do not rest entirely with the EU. For sure, the final, actionable laws will be the fruits of the EU, but the EU is acting in concert with multiple international agencies, the latter producing the global rules on what is known as "plant propagation". 

Currently, the EU is updating and harmonising its own rules to bring them into line with global standards, this being the proximate cause for the present perturbation.

It is rather ironic, therefore, that, having complained so often about the legacy media failing to see the EU "elephant in the room", we are now lambasting the Mail for failing to identify the other "elephant in the room" – world governance.

That is not to say that the situation is at all clear or straightforward, so much so that the European Commission needed a 198-page report to appraise them of the state of the art. And, from this, it emerges that there have been several plant standards bodies toiling in the vineyard, one of the most prominent being the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This Paris-based organisation "provides a forum in which governments can work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems", so why it should be so intimately involved in plant and seed regulation is something of a mystery. But it is nonetheless the case that the OECD is a prime mover, although not entirely on its own.

Alongside this body is our old friend UNECE, which hosts WP-7 which is developing "global agricultural quality standards to facilitate international trade". Amongst other things, it has a special role in the standardisation of seed potatoes, but also deals with quality control of fruit and vegetables.

Then there is the International Seed Testing Association ISTA whose members work together "to achieve their vision of uniformity in seed quality evaluation worldwide". Based in Bassersdorf, near Zurich, it effectively sets the global standards in the field of seed testing.

This obscure organisation works alongside an even more obscure body, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). It has its headquarters in Geneva and was established in 1961 to implement the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. That convention alone has spawned seven laws in the United Kingdom.

Both the European Parliament and the Commission acknowledge the roles of these rule-making bodies, with the Parliament telling us that the EU's framework has been drawn up in the wider context of the international establishment of rules and standards in this sector by, among other bodies, the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants and the OECD.

The Commission tells us that, overall, the EU rules are "aligned with international standards and guidelines (OECD), with the exception of the EU rules for seed potatoes which have less stringent tolerances for certification than the UNECE standards".

Where there are differences, it seems that EU has minimum standards for specific purity and germination capacity, whereas OECD rules do not, except for sugar beet and fodder beet seed. Otherwise, the EU and OECD Rules are comparable.

There is, therefore, no secret about the inter-relationship between the regional EU and the global bodies. The EU very much sees itself as the European arm of global governance and has for some many years been working with global bodies to harmonise its own rules with theirs. In relation to OECD plant rules, it even has its own officials on OECD working parties.

Interestingly, journalist Valerie Elliott cites in her Mail story the Horticultural Trades Association, which shows no sign of being familiar with the role of the OECD in the framing of plant standards, although it is fully aware of the EU dimension. World governance may not be secret, but it is largely invisible. The horizons of the little Europeans stop at Brussels.