Without meaning to dig up the issue of regulatory divergence yet again, I thought it was extremely important that David Davis made mention of the globalised nature of regulation and standard setting in his Vienna speech this morning. There he reminded business leaders that "the future of standards and regulations – the building blocks of free trade — is increasingly global", and that "by leading from the front and setting standards, you can drive innovation and enable new technology to thrive." This is an important new direction for the Brexit debate to head in.
I am happy to hear David Davis mention this because it has thus far been one of the detail elephants in the room. Important too was his assertion that standards form the building blocks of 'free trade'. What we call free trade is most effectively encouraged by harmonising regulation, and where residual tariffs are a problem, by the necessary reduction. A new standard can bind together two former diverging standards into a new, harmonised one, which in turn facilitates trade by freeing supply chains from a technical barrier to trade.
One thing I need readers to understand is that as far as trade is concerned, regulation itself is not the problem. The problem is differences in regulation, and in finding ways to reconcile divergent regulatory architecture. That all starts at the agencies referred to in Davis' speech. Importantly, not all non-tariff barriers to trade (usually regulatory) are what is called 'actionable'. A 2013 study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research concluded that about half of all present non-tariff barriers to trade are actionable, meaning they can be eliminated for the sake of liberalising the conditions for trade.
I describe Davis' comments as a new direction for the national debate because these points have largely escaped Brexit's public domain. We have spent so much of the past few years complaining about "EU rules" and "EU red tape" that we have failed to see a bigger picture. Even trade experts have often been guilty of casting their gaze too narrowly and focusing solely on the influence of the WTO. As far as I have seen they have not really acknowledged the activity undertaken horizontally of the WTO, in regulatory agencies seldom mentioned but ultimately vital to trade discussion.
Of these, UNECE, the ISO, CODEX, OECD and WCO (World Customs Organisation) are the most influential. Often what is seen on the ground as public policy derives from action taken at these forums. The shape of the headlights on your car, for instance, is determined not in Brussels but in Geneva, by UNECE 'working parties'. Incidentally part of the reason for the non-existent trade in cars between the EU and USA is that the Americans refused to adopt UNECE standards which would have forced US-based car companies into widespread redesigns.
During the referendum campaign almost no attention was paid to the origin of technical standards embedded within EU law. This is basically because it is not interesting. But, as with most boring political detail, it is important. The only regulation I remember being raised was the infamous 'bent banana directive', which was offered as a sort of meme to point out the ludicrousness of some EU rulemaking. Of course, the trouble here was that the EU is not responsible for the aforementioned regulation. That burden lies with Codex Alimentarius, a major agricultural regulator.
Mundane though the standard is (which bans fruit of abnormal curvature or damaged by pesticides and contaminants), it is interesting in that it captures quite neatly some of the intricacies of the globalised regulatory agenda. What we begin to see is that hidden agencies, granted their regulating authority by the WTO, are responsible for creating many of the rules governing trade systems. These are the arenas we will need to learn to re-assimilate ourselves into after Brexit. They are where much of our manoeuvring will need to be concentrated when trying to influence new global standards.
Towards the latter end of 2017 I wrote this blog post (read, incidentally, by two current cabinet ministers), which detailed the two major reasons why there will be no Brexit-induced regulatory sovereignty. The first reason was the crux of what I have discussed here, and the second was the inconvenient fact that we find ourselves alleyed between two regulatory superpowers in the EU and United States, who just so happen to be our two largest trading partners. We cannot converge with both, because the regimes are fundamentally very different. We have a choice to make.
My use of the term 'regulatory superpower' merely reflects the EU's important role in influencing international standard setting. To add another layer to the bent banana fiasco, the CODEX standard of 1997 is itself based on an originating EU standard constructed in 1995. So, in a nutshell, what we have before us is a vast matrix of organisations engaged in a complex interlocking of rulemaking. Often, global forums will take the nucleus of a domestic standard, often from the power responsible for the science and research which went into forming it, and transpose it into a global one. A two-way street, so to speak.
Both Remainers and Leavers have something to learn from all this. The globalisation of standard setting undermines two key arguments on both sides of the referendum debate. It rubbishes the claim that the add-on Single Market states (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) have no say in EEA rulemaking, and it demolishes the argument that Brexit will bestow upon us newfound regulatory sovereignty. I have been at pains to point these things out, with almost no success given how little attention is paid to the issue of regulation by anybody in Westminster or the legacy media.
If we build on Davis' important admission we may be able to enjoy a more balanced and grown-up debate about trade in the UK. I know the whole topic is dry and does not wet the appetite in quite the same way that zero tariff fanaticism does. But the detail is important. The work achieved at global level, whether it be setting a labelling standard or a standard on car tyres, facilitates enormous amounts of trade. International cooperation is the name of the game and Brexit Britain will need to recognise where its resources and diplomatic energies are best spent. Today was a welcome step in a positive direction.