Do YOU know how the EU really shapes British public policy?

With the EU Referendum just over a week away we turned to author and academic Janice Morphet to educate ourselves on how the EU really shapes British public policy…

Janice Morphet photo 2016.1Since the UK EU referendum debate was announced, there have been many claims and counter claims by those on both sides of the argument to remain or leave.

For many of the electorate, there has been a continuing call for ‘facts’ or some independent source of comparative information on the role and influence of membership of the EU on life in the UK.

Embarrassing ignorance

However, the fact that cannot be denied is how little the UK population understands about the way in which the EU works and how any member state operates within it. This is evidenced daily, particularly but not exclusively in broadcast media, when respected journalists and commentators display an embarrassing ignorance of the EU’s institutions, policies and persona.

Why is this? Since the UK joined the European Community in 1972, there has been reluctance by UK civil servants to acknowledge and engage with the many processes of its internal decision making(1).

“in the 1980s…regulations were dismissed as advisory or aspirational rather than mandatory…”

While the UK has sponsored the EU’s place at the tables of the WTO and OECD and led the development and adoption of the Single European Market in 1992(2) , it has been less willing to openly acknowledge the implications of joint decision-making in policy areas that have been pooled within the member states.

Initially, in the 1980s, during the Thatcher years, this frequently meant an outright denial of the implications of these pooled agreements on issues such as the environment. The development of EU directives and regulations within 5-7 year programmes were dismissed as advisory or aspirational rather than mandatory once adopted by the Council of Ministers.

This led to significant UK costs of delayed implementation, retrofitting or the payment of fines for non-compliance. The UK is still bearing these costs through, for example, failure to meet air quality standards that affect the nation’s health causing premature deaths. Another consequence is on the provision of energy security as non-compliant power stations are closed down.

“although agreed many years in advance, the media is fed lines that these standards have…come as a great surprise”

When the UK fails to apply standards by due dates, although agreed many years in advance, the media is fed lines that these standards have been imposed by faceless bureaucrats and have come as a great surprise.

In a pre-internet age, this may have been accepted but it is hard to see how this line of argument can be advanced when the document trail, including agendas, background papers, meeting briefings, minutes, meeting attendees and votes cast are now all in the public domain.

Yet they are rarely reported to the UK Parliament in other than in an economical way – one or two minor agenda items rather than the main issues.

Parallel narratives

In order to maintain this position, civil servants have become adept at developing cover or parallel narratives that enable the policies agreed in the EU to be adopted as if emanating from UK politicians.

This involves finding policy presentations that align with prevailing government ideologies and orthodoxies – thus competiton in public services was turned into best value into 1997. The adoption of territorial cohesion and subsidiarity legislation in 2007 has emerged as the decentralisation agenda in the UK and prevailed through three governments since then.

More recently, perhaps because of the forthcoming referendum, there have been fewer attempts to develop these long policy narratives and Whitehall has moved to a short form of working, or what I have termed ‘orphan’ policies that are frequently introduced and persist across changes in government in an unexplained way. There are few departmental policy papers, no publication of research and the policy trail has been abruptly lost since the inception of

Now Government Departments are publishing EU policy advice without even bothering to change the headings. The only place to find a coherent policy narrative for England is through the standard notes issued by the House of Commons Library, seeking to fill the gaps for MPs.

Is this the case in other member states? Elsewhere, civil servants are expected to spend some time in the European Commission or allied bodies as a prerequisite to promotion to senior roles.

“a UK civil servant who temporarily transfers to the European Commission is likely to find their job abolished on return”

In some countries, such as France, this is also expected from presidential candidates – one of the main concerns before President Hollande was elected was that, unlike all his predecessors, he had no direct EU experience.

In the UK, a scheme to support young civil servants into the competitions for posts inside the European Commission was dropped. Unlike other member states, a UK civil servant who temporarily transfers to the European Commission is likely to find their job abolished on return.

There is also a continuing cultural difference in the form of government between the EU and its member states other than the UK. The UK government operates in episodic five-year cycles that have recently been reinforced through the adoption of fixed Parliaments.

The EU works in a different way. It adopts programmes of legislation and initiatives that are 5-7 years long. These are cumulative in their effect and reflected at the beginning of all EU opinions and legislation in the lists of ‘whereas’ clauses.

Adversarial vs deliberative

The UK’s approach to decision-making is adversarial despite initiatives such as the introduction of proportional representation. The EU’s approach is deliberative and it seeks to achieve consensus. As Mount(3) recently commented, this may be the most practical way to proceed with 28 members and the UK should recognize this.

All of this has led to large ‘keep out’ signs around any consideration of EU policies within UK civil society. Some professional bodies have engaged directly as they cannot function without knowledge of and influence in the current legal and policy arenas. Elsewhere, those engaging in EU debates within the UK are made to appear transgressive and marginal.

The UK entered this referendum campaign with a very poor understanding of the many modes of EU policy and decision-making, including the UK’s role in them. While the likely implications of leaving the EU were to the forefront at the opening of the referendum debate, they seem to have dropped from public consciousness now. They need to be remembered as the referendum draws closer.

“..the UK is paying a price for forty years of disengagement from EU matters”

Joining the European Economic Area, like Norway, will bring membership costs, free movement of people and all EU legislation without a seat at the table. The Swiss option, should it be open, will also mean membership costs, free movement and the adoption of EU policy and legislation for those areas where the UK seeks to enter trade agreements.

If we choose neither of these routes, then we will still need to abide by other international agreements that are managed by trade groups elsewhere within the new geopolitics including trade and public competiton treaties through the World Trade Organization, environmental standards and agreements through the UN and less formal but equally coercive social and economic policy judgements through the OECD, IMF and World Economic Forum.

As Martin Kettle(4) has recently commented, the UK is paying a price for forty years of disengagement from EU matters. Only now is this being recognized.

Should there be a vote to remain, a new and more open approach in Whitehall is required, together with an active engagement by civil society that is not discouraged by those who find obscured and deflected decision-making more convenient.

“..the EU has the principles of social, economic and territorial equity as its legal mandate”

Engaging in negotiation can achieve more positive outcomes. The UK excels at diplomacy across the world – now these skills are needed closer to home. Last but not least, the EU has the principles of social, economic and territorial equity as its legal mandate.

What separates England from the rest of the UK and the EU is the loss of these core values in public policy. That is what those in favour of Brexit wish to reinforce. This is a stark choice between the welfare state and what preceded it – and for many, this will be no choice at all.

#EUreferendum #Remain #Leave #Brexit


(1) Bulmer S. and Burch, S. (2009) The Europeanisation of Whitehall: UK Central Government and the European Union, Manchester University Press,
(2) Cockfield A. (1994) The European Union, London: John Wiley.
(3) Mount F. (2016) ‘Nigels against the World’ London Review of Books vol 38 no 10 pp 21-23 !9th May
(4) Kettle M. (2016) ‘Our own bad habits have brought Britain to the brink of Brexit’ The Guardian 3rd June 2016

How Europe shapes British public policy [FC]How Europe shapes British public policy by Janice Morphet is available to purchase from the Policy Press website here.

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3 Responses to “Do YOU know how the EU really shapes British public policy?”

  1. 1 Tony Holmes June 20, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    The EU “has the principles of social, economic and territorial equity as its legal mandate”.

    How is this mandate served by a 25% collapse in Greek GDP, together with persistent widespread youth unemployment all over southern Europe ?

  1. 1 David Cameron’s `Welfare’ Legacy. Thatcher’s Son or Macmillan’s Heir? | The Policy Press Blog Trackback on June 23, 2016 at 9:06 am
  2. 2 Dejected, disgruntled and divided: Britain’s EU referendum | The Policy Press Blog Trackback on June 27, 2016 at 2:14 pm

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