A burden on British business? The extent of EU regulation

14 October 2013


In a week when the government's taskforce is expected to report on how policy formulated in Brussels affects British business, several newspapers published articles on the extent of EU "red tape".

They all referred to the fact that since the election in May 2010 British firms have been forced to deal with some 3,580 new EU directives. 

The source of these figures is Business for Britain - "an independent, non partisan" organisation which is campaigning for the government to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership of the EU.

In its latest briefing Business for Britain has used the Official Journal of European Law to keep track of every directive passed between 12 May 2010 (the day after David Cameron became Prime Minister) and 30 September 2013. Its researchers then produced a checklist of 19 questions to determine whether a regulation might apply to British firms.

The questions vary from the general ("Does it make specific and explicit demands on British businesses?") to the more specific ("Does it alter the functioning of the Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy or the Common Commercial Policy?"). For a regulation to be described as "having an impact" on British business, the researchers needed to answer 'yes' to only one of the 19 questions on the list.

Business for Britain explains that not every regulation in the count will be relevant to all British businesses, which is an important caveat. In fact, the researchers note that "the majority of EU laws concern themselves with agriculture and/or fishing issues". For instance, in Business for Britain's list of 3,580 EU regulations, there are approximately 600 directives referring to "fruit and vegetables".

While the EU might have imposed a considerable burden on the food industry - from salmon farms through to supermarkets - by comparison other areas of British business haven't been regulated as heavily.

The figure of 3,589 directives is headline material. Although some might argue that it's a subjective calculation and not one based on reported experience, it offers us an idea of the volume of EU directives that might affect British firms.

However, 'British business' is not a morass of unified interests. It's clear that certain sectors are subject to more regulation than others and so the impact of these directives isn't evenly distributed.

In addition, Business for Britain says its research is not designed to distinguish between necessary regulation and that of the more "spurious" variety. We therefore don't know how many regulations might be regarded as simply burdensome, and on the other hand how many would be recognised as vital interventions.

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