Many of the people who tell me we must stay in the single market are usually unable to define it. Before deciding what our relationship with it should be, it is first important to understand it.
I was given several difficult jobs in government that I would not have asked for but was prepared to do. The worst job turned out to be Single Market Minister. I am sure the offer was meant nicely. I was asked to negotiate for the UK the remaining legislative items that made up the 1992 single market programme. It entailed passing 282 new laws. Some of them had little to do with trade. It always included a “citizen dimension” of individual rights, and a “governance dimension” of legal controls. This large legislative programme was called “completing the single market”. After we did all that many more things were added in, and to this day in some descriptions they are still trying to “complete the single market”.
I approached the task only mildly sceptical about what I was being asked to do. I had no problem with the alleged aim of the policy, the expansion of trade and business between member states. I began by asking myself why it would need so many pieces of legislation to do that. The simplest way to achieve a freer market after all is to simply allow goods and services free access on the basis that if they are approved for sale in country A why not let them also be offered for sale in country B. Customers and a free press can make up their minds on whether they are wanted. The authorities just have to say they are legal.
I soon discovered that the so called free market programme was a huge legislative programme enabling the EU to greatly expand its power and reach with every Directive or Regulation that it passed. It was about the doctrine of the acquis or the occupied field. Once we had passed a Directive on say environmental or safety issues for certain products all those issues fell to the jurisdiction of the European Court and under the policy and law making wing of the EU. I was soon in damage limitation mode, dashing round Europe or hitting the phones to organise blocking minorities to stop the most worrying features of proposed regulations and laws. Most of the business lobbying I received was to take things out of draft laws or to soften them, not to have more of them. Sometimes I found enough support to prevent measures going through. Other times owing to qualified majority voting the UK had to accept an unsatisfactory compromise to avoid something worse.
Today many of our former EU partners have a different view of the single market to us. There is no separate body of law called Single market law distinct from the whole body of EU law. The “Single European Act” has long since been subsumed into the enlarged general Treaty of European Union. Many members see the single currency, freedom of movement, environmental policy, health and safety policy and the rest as central to the single market. They do not see it as just a limited regulation of product and service standards and specifications in the way some UK businesses do.
Many big businesses lobby against new Directives or regulations when they are first mooted, or argue to amend their early drafts. They then come to accept the approved body of such measures, as they make themselves able to conform and see that they make market entry more difficult for smaller rivals. I was interested to read this week that more in the City now accept that leaving the EU means leaving the single market as widely defined by the EU itself. That does not prevent us trading with the EU market, as many independent countries around the world do very successfully.