No-deal readiness, Lord Cockfield and the British ingenuity behind the EU single market

The UK helped to deliver the greatest bonfire of red tape in human history. But it is now contemplating the erection of countless new barriers, and in doing so, abandoning its proud record from decades past

October 09, 2019
Lord Cockfield in the early 1980s. PA Archive/PA Images
Lord Cockfield in the early 1980s. PA Archive/PA Images

The government’s “No-Deal Readiness Report,” published on Tuesday, sets out in one place what will change if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. Media coverage has focused on an important but transitory issue: our state of Brexit preparedness. But the report’s 159 pages reveal a more lasting truth: that whenever it comes, Brexit will not only reduce our hard-won freedoms to move and to trade across the EU, but thrust what remains of them into a dense new thicket of red tape.

The report’s length allows for only an outline of the new barriers, many of which are not yet defined. EORI numbers and customs forms will be required for exporters; permits, authorisations and licences for transport operators. Manufacturers must think about new product approvals, certificates and local representatives. Service providers are warned that they may face new discriminatory or non-discriminatory barriers, and will have to comply with a vast array of host state rules, including for visas, if they are to continue doing business in the EU. Migrant UK nationals must register, and navigate local requirements ranging from healthcare eligibility to driving tests. Holiday travellers will need health insurance and should carry proof of funds and a return ticket in case of interest from immigration officials; if they wish to bring their dog or cat, at least four months should be allowed for the necessary preparations.

As Michael Gove’s report was debated in parliament yesterday, I recalled the work of another prominent Conservative: Arthur Cockfield, the so-called “Father of the Single Market.” Appointed to the European Commission by Margaret Thatcher, Lord Cockfield set out in a 1985 White Paper no fewer than 300 barriers to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital, and persuaded the member states to commit to removing all of them by the end of 1992. At the core of his programme was the “new approach”: in place of time-consuming attempts to legislate for Euro-bread or Euro-architects came the principles of core harmonisation and mutual recognition of national standards, implemented by qualified majority voting in the Council under the Single European Act of 1986.

As a young man I spent five exhilarating months as a stagiaire in Lord Cockfield’s private office in the Berlaymont, the base from which the single market was planned.  Some resulting bias cannot be ruled out. But the timely implementation of Cockfield’s White Paper was, I would venture, both the most significant achievement of what is now the EU and the greatest bonfire of red tape in human history.

Cockfield had two qualities not always seen in Britons who seek influence in Europe.  The first was his ability to build pragmatic alliances, notably with Commission President Jacques Delors, who for all his political and cultural differences had an intellect and determination to match Cockfield’s own. The second was his understanding that the unification of Europe was more than an economic affair. If from time to time he thought his staff insufficiently responsive to questions from members of the European Parliament, he would remind us that the Stuart kings ceded power in the end to the representatives of the people, and that Europe too must be a political construct. Each Armistice Day, he would travel to the Somme to pay homage to the father who died there a month before he was born.

I once heard Michael Gove ridiculing the EU by recounting how, as a minister, he was asked to sign off on rules under an EU directive setting standards for crème brulée torches. Lord Cockfield died in 2007: but I can imagine him applying his remorseless logic to the issue. Common standards guarantee a continent-wide market for exporters, free of national protectionism, while safeguarding consumers from sub-standard imports and providing a platform to promote European products worldwide. The economic strength and integration afforded by the single market in turn makes Europe, notwithstanding its many differences, into the world’s regulatory superpower and one of its principal trading powers. Thus, the humble crème brulée torch assists 7 per cent of the world’s population to maintain a strong economy and to sustain and project the democratic values that we hold in common.

The referendum result showed that those of us in Britain who participated in the European project (in my case, as an advocate for 30 years before the European Court) failed, lamentably, to explain its purpose at home. But the journey from Cockfield’s bonfire of red tape to its imminent recreation a quarter of a century later has been a paradoxical and depressing one. The single market, joined recently by the security union, is the most distinctively British contribution to 21st century Europe and the most valuable for the UK. To turn away from it will benefit nobody, and can only diminish us.