Home Flexcit Impact Assessments Monographs Contact

Brexit: goodbye to the oaf

2018-07-10 08:03:51

Considerably fewer tears than might have been expected have been shed over the loss of the Conservative's once favourite son, as Alexander (aka "Boris") Johnson departs from the Foreign Office in a typically shambolic fashion.

Self-important as always, Johnson penned a resignation letter claiming that the Brexit dream "is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt", with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.

Like so many, including David Davis who had only resigned hours before, Johnson is obsessed with what he sees as the "rule taker" status of the EU, complaining "it now seems that the opening bid of our negotiations involves accepting that we are not actually going to be able to make our own laws".

Indeed, he writes, we seem to have gone backwards since the last Chequers meeting in February". It was then, he asserts, that he described his frustrations, as Mayor of London, in trying to protect cyclists from juggernauts.

In this, he claims that TfL had wanted to lower the cabin windows of heavy goods vehicles to improve visibility. And even though such designs were already on the market, and even though there had been a horrific spate of deaths, mainly of female cyclists, he asserts: "we were told that we had to wait for the EU to legislate on the matter".

Clearly, it was things like this which he had in mind when, at the previous Chequers session, "we thrashed out an elaborate procedure for divergence from EU rules". But, he whinges, "even that seems to have been taken off the table and there is in fact no easy UK right of initiative".

If Brexit is to mean anything, he avers, it must surely give ministers and Parliament the chance to do things differently to protect the public, then adding: "If a country cannot pass a law to save the lives of female cyclists – when that proposal is supported at every level of UK Government – then I don't see how that country can truly be called independent".

The cycle story, however, is one that Johnson has used before, is his Telegraph column in March 2016 (a few months before the EU referendum). Then he claimed to have discovered in 2013 that "that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed". It had, he said, "to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed".

This was picked up by Channel 4's Fact Check (dated the previous month) which observed that this sounded like Boris, as London's cycling-friendly mayor, wanted to redesign lorries to make them safer, only to be thwarted by the EU, and the French in particular.

Needless to say, Channel 4 decided that this story didn't fit the facts. In 2014, it asserted, citing a BBC source, the European Parliament had voted "overwhelmingly" to change the shape of lorry cabs to cut cyclist deaths, despite initial opposition from some national governments, including that of the UK.

This Channel 4 knew from the BBC article which identified "one B Johnson was a big cheerleader for the EU-wide changes, and a critic of the Conservative-led government's stance at the time". He was quoted as saying: "If these amendments, supported by dozens of cities across Europe, can succeed, we can save literally hundreds of lives across the EU in years to come. I am deeply concerned at the position of the British government and urge them to embrace this vital issue".

According to this narrative, the French and Swedish governments had tried to delay implementing the changes for ten years, but they failed, and new regulations would come into force in 2019. Thus, Channel 4 asserted, "it's not true that 'there was nothing we could do'. The European Parliament actually implemented the changes backed at the time by Boris himself". It’s hard to see, it concluded, "why he's criticising the EU over this now".

One thing Channel 4 does not seem to have done, however, is actually read the resultant legislation, Directive (EU) 2015/719 or the subsequent proposal for implementing legislation set out in COM(2018) 286 final on "type-approval requirements for motor vehicles and their trailers, and systems, components and separate technical units intended for such vehicles, as regards their general safety and the protection of vehicle occupants and vulnerable road users".

Had they done so – and understood what they were reading - they might have reported differently, in a manner which goes to the very heart of the "rule taker" meme.

The reasons for this is that the Directive makes the desired changes contingent on "the necessary amendments to the technical requirements for type approval of the aerodynamic devices are transposed or applied and the Commission has adopted implementing acts laying down the operational rules…".

This is but one of several references to "type approval", carried over to 2018 proposal, currently going through the European Parliament, where reference is made to the standard harmonisation process at international level, through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the need "to repeal several EU Regulations … and to replace them by equivalent UN Regulations".

To cut a very long story short, Johnson's appreciation of the situation puts him where we were in 2006 when Owen Paterson was shadow transport secretary and we were complaining about delays to road safety measures.

But even then, we were discovering what I called a "fatal confusion" which had the then current (Labour) transport secretary telling us that, "because of obligations under United Nations Economic Commission for Europe", we were "unable to make any unilateral requirement of vehicles in this country".

Around that time (September 2006), we were finding that many journalists had an extremely hazy idea of the role of the EU in road safety (which was a shared competence). By then,I was able to write a long piece setting out in detail EU involvement in this field, and in particular on what was to become a long-running saga on fitting reflective tape markings to the sides of HGVs in order to reduce side collisions. It was there again that I referenced the role of UNECE.

A couple of years later, on 17 December 2008, the Telegraph's David Millward> (their transport editor) was complaining that "EU laws" were stopping the UK Government from making foreign lorries carry safety mirrors. They were, he wrote, preventing the British Government from compelling foreign lorries to fit mirrors which would radically cut road accidents in the UK.

Then, I was able to write a comprehensive piece explaining the role of UNECE, pointing out that even the EU had to wait for this body to act before it could proceed to the legislative stage on safety modifications to vehicles.

In 2013, Johnson and his cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan were planning on going to Brussels "to push the EU on safer designs of new lorries with better sightlines and fewer blindspots". A year later Johnson popped up again with his concerns about blindspots in lorries, stating that a forthcoming debate in the European Parliament was "a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the EU to remove some of the blockages which prevent us from making lorries safer in our cities".

When the European Parliament approved new rules though, this wasn't the end of the matter. In September 2014, I was making it very clear that UNECE played a pivotal role in any vehicle improvements. And, although Johnson has not then (or ever) mentioned UNECE, I suggested that he got on the next jet to Geneva, home of the UN body.

Another piece in December 2014, I wrote of delays in getting new standards approved, calling again for Brussels again to be by-passed, suggesting that Mr Johnson's successor should go straight to Geneva to lobby for new or additional laws.

Coming right up to date, this is precisely the option that would have been available to us if Mrs May had elected to keep us in the Single Market via Efta/EEA. It is through UNECE and other global bodies that an "independent" UK can best seek changes which largely have to happen at an international level.  

The greater point, though, is that Johnson, in complaining about having to abide by EU rules, has clearly learned nothing from his tenure as London Mayor (or foreign secretary), and does not realise that the laws he complains of most often have origins at a level higher than the EU. And, since it is the Member State which are involved in making framing the standards that become laws, it is the EU that become the "rule taker".

His bitter condemnation of Mrs May for leaving the UK with no control over the system betrays a fundamental ignorance about how the system works. It thus has Johnson and his allies fighting the wrong battles for the wrong reasons – effectively resigning because he has no idea of how the world really works.

Of course the current situation is unsatisfactory, but even at its worst, it is not as bad as Johnson paints it. And had he not objected to the Efta/EEA option, we would be so much better off – yet still adopting the same laws. Thus, as we bid farewell to the oaf, we lose someone who was unfit to make any useful contribution to the Brexit process. We are far better off without him.