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The Brexit U-turn over CE marks makes Britain a rule-taker without influence

The government has quietly admitted Singapore-on-Thames is dead

Anti-Brexit campaigners wave Union and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament. Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

We are all used to the concept of “burying bad news” in a raft of other, more positive policy announcements. But in a week in which the government seems to have decided that putting the planet and Britain’s children in greater danger is acceptable as long as it gives them a small electoral advantage, it has also invented the concept of burying good news.

Because the Department of Business and Trade has announced an indefinite extension to the use of the EU’s CE marks for UK businesses. This is a far bigger deal than it sounds – both for its impact on businesses, who are relieved, and for what it says about Brexit, which is dying.

The CE mark is found on everything you own, from your electric toothbrush to your car and shows that the product has been independently tested and conforms to the EU’s vigorous and rigorous standards regime. 

One of the great “Brexit freedoms” was the right to abolish these tests, “imposed “on the UK by Brussels and introduce a brand new UKCA mark, which would do exactly what the old CE mark did. The theory was that the new tests would be pro-British business, lighter, more flexible and cheaper. What’s not to like?

But the fact was that UK industry hated the idea. The UKCA mark would never have been accepted in the EU – its largest export market by far – and it would cost a fortune to introduce, as all the tests on every single product, component and ingredient would have to be done again. 

So, industry would have ended up with two lots of tests and two lots of rules and regulations; one which enabled them to sell in the EU and much of the rest of the world and one for just the UK.

Now, with no sense of irony or shame, the Department for Business and Trade has  announced an indefinite extension to the use of CE marking for UK businesses including in the UK itself and even has the chutzpah to say, “This comes as part of a wider package of smarter regulations designed to ease business burdens and help grow the economy by cutting barriers and red tape.”  The business minister Kevin Hollinrake even has the gall to claim “By extending CE marking use across the UK, firms can focus their time and money on creating jobs and growing the economy.”

Which really lets the cat out of the bag, as it admits these mad Brexit plans for a go-it-alone regulatory system were costing time and money, hurting growth and job creation. 

British industry will welcome this U-turn with open arms. Stephen Phipson CEO of Make UK  called it a “pragmatic and common-sense decision that manufacturers will very much welcome and support. This announcement will help safeguard the competitiveness of manufacturers and aid the UK as a destination for investment.” Which, once again, shows you how damaging the UK government’s own plans for the UK economy have been.

Mr. Phipson also claims that this will allow business to use either the UKCA or CE marks at home and abroad, but the UK system is now a dead man walking. Who is going to bother to design and produce goods to two different standards, run two production lines, have to check which batch is going to the home market and which is for export every day, and test its products twice at double the cost? 

EU standards will become the standard ones, they will be imposed on the UK by default and there is nothing that British industry can do to influence them. New regulations and rules will be written to benefit EU firms and the EU, while British firms will have to spend time and money keeping up with those changing rules or risk divergence by inertia. Divergence which means their products will be banned from the EU until they are changed and conform.

So British industry has won its argument that the UKCA was a mad idea and the government has had to back down in the face of cold reality. UK business will still suffer some expensive consequences, but that beats the alternative.

However, for the UK’s own conformity assessment bodies – the businesses that do the tests to ensure that products meet the standards set by government – this is a death knell. 

That is because, post-Brexit, UK conformity assessment bodies can no longer carry out mandatory tests for products being placed on the EU market. Those tests have to be done by EU firms, not UK ones. If, as is likely, no-one bothers with the UKCA but does keep the CE mark, then they will have nothing to do. They can relocate to the EU or die, another “benefit” of Brexit. 

But the far larger consequence of this totally humiliating U-turn and backdown by the government is that the economic argument for Brexit has once again proved to be a total lie and a disaster. The new, lighter regulation Singapore-on-Thames model that the Brexiteers were pushing for has been killed off by this announcement. The UK will have to stick to EU rules for manufactured goods with no say on what the rules are. 

It is the sensible thing to do, even if far from perfect but it destroys much of the so-called logic of Brexit, to free the UK economy from the strangling red tape of EU rules. 

The UK could never be a “rule setter” like the EU or the USA and now it has had to admit it. If it has any sense the government will now adopt all the EU’s standards and rules on food and agricultural products (SPS rules), as introducing its own will mean billions of pounds wasted on tests at the border which are totally unnecessary and will force up the price of food imports massively. It should also join the chemical industry’s regulator REACH, which it has also tried to duplicate. There is no more logic for those duplications of existing EU systems than there is for abandoning the CE mark and going it alone.

Of course, the logic behind this announcement leads in only one direction. 

If only there was a way to have a vote or even a veto on those rules and regulations, influence the way they are created, the way they work and are implemented, make sure that they take the interests of the UK and UK business into account, have a seat at the table when the decisions are made. 

That would surely be better than this. Wouldn’t it?

If only!

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