LOOKING AT LEGISLATION
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UNJAMMING THE EEC
THE EEC drivers' hours Regulation No 543/69 is important for at least two reasons. While it affects the daily working lives of about one million EEC citizens, it also typifies the whole difficult and slow process of enacting and applying Community law.
So there are clues here to ways in which the situation might change in the future. Those who find the EEC's inner workings mysterious may find them clarified by looking at them in a familiar context.
The Regulation's faults are well known. Its drafting is imprecise. Terms are used without being defined. The versions in the seven official Community languages even say different things. A glance at the Commission's annual report on the application of the Regulation shows unacceptable variations between countries. And the difficulty of amending it has been highlighted in CM's news pages.
These defects have their roots in the difficulty of getting agreement on anything in the EEC. The practice is to require all decisions to be taken with the agreement of all 10 countries, and not by the qualified majority voting system I have described in earlier articles. This has three unfortunate consequences.
First, it positively encourages imprecision, since the vaguer the drafting the easier it is to secure agreement. Ministers can then apply an interpretation which suits them, leaving the Court to sort out the mess later on.
Second, the officials who actually do the drafting have to hurry to catch their political masters in one of their rare moments of agreement. In May 1984 Transport Ministers left Brussels rejoicing at having solved several problems during an informal lunch-time discussion in the absence of their civil servants. But during the following weeks, when the civil servants came to put the "agreement" into writing it was clear that no agreement existed.
So they have to strike while the Ministerial bonhomie still exists. This means working flat out — often in the middle of the night. In these conditions even the most skilled wordsmith working in only one language might fall short of perfection. Getting clarity and consistency in seven languages is even more difficult. Third, those countries which do not want to apply the legislation anyway can use its ambiguities as an excuse for inaction.
This sort of situation is not peculiar to transport. It is repeated, with inevitable variations of detail, throughout all areas of EEC policy. So change must be a slow process. But the pressures for change are growing.
The increase of Member States from 10 to 12 when Spain and Portugal join next January is probably the strongest force. The Ten have taken years to agree on anything; without change the Twelve would take decades. So last month's EEC Summit concentrated on speeding up the process.
But whatever accelerating machinery is used, the essential need for faster progress is greater willingness by individual countries to compromise on inessentials.
The principle is fine. But in practice a Minister is faced with a choice between giving way on a triviality in Brussels or pleasing a pressure group back home. In those circumstances he or she usually takes the easy way out.
Despite the Summit's bold statements of good intentions, left to themselves the Twelve would probably carry on much as before. But shortly before they met last month the Summiteers were reminded of an external threat to European prosperity. Lord Cockfield, one of Britain's two European Commissioners, pointed out that the Twelve have a population of 320 million — larger than that of the USA. But their economy is much smaller. And the Community is competing in a world economy with Japan and other low-cost Asiatic producers_ Despite these challenges, the EEC hobbles itself with internal barriers to trade. These are not confined to transport, but by the very nature of the industry they are more highly visible there. And there are plenty of them.
The Road Haulage Association points out how British hauliers are penalised vehicle and fuel taxes higher than aim( anywhere else. Despite recent increase permit quotas still hamper internationo hauliers. Since Switzerland is almost surrounded by EEC territory, the EEC was well placed to respond to the recently imposed heavy transit taxes. But the response varied from German instant full reciprocity to Britain's belated promise to think about doing something sometime — perhaps. And Britain is contributing to the problem via Mr Ridley's undertaking to keep EEC 40-tormers out of Britain when they become standard on the European mainland this time next year.
As a result of this sort of antic, European homes are full of Japanese video-recorders, its roads are crowded with Japanese cars, and so on. "Gentlemen's agreements" to restrict competition have simply shown that Japanese businessmen are not gentleme And in any case such restrictions are essentially negative.
So unemployment in Europe rises inexorably. And, whatever else they disagree about, unemployment increasingly frightens the politicians.
On top of these pressures the European Court judgment last May in favour of the European Parliament against EEC Transport Ministers point out a long-term threat by MEPs to tak more power, and not just in the transport field.
So there is a better chance now than at any time since the idealistic days of the late 1950s for the EEC to earn the title "Common Market". But althougl Britain supports greater freedom of movement, there will be problems for the Government. Harmonisation of Excise duties — one of Lord Cockfield main proposals — might make it impossible for the Chancellor to use road haulage as a milch cow. Certainly we would have to admit 40-tonne lorries.
So there will be no headlong forwar( rush in EEC transport, or any other policy field. But Ministers seem likely start to act on the principle that greater flexibility will serve their interests. Transport has been the main sufferer front years of inaction; it could be among the first to benefit from a chang of climate.
by Keith Vincent