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Transatlantic Blog

The ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and the long shadow of EU law

Millions had assumed that Brexit meant that, in the words of Prime Minister Theresa May, "our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast." But the government has announced that it will continue to be bound by thousands of EU regulations, passed in Brussels, for the foreseeable future.

The revelation is part of the government white paper on the forthcoming "Great Repeal Bill." It will revoke the European Communities Act of 1972, the legislation that maintains the UK's membership in the EU. But it will also adopt the entire body of EU law into the UK's legal code, where it will remain in force until the day when (or if) each individual measure is changed or repealed.

The size and scope of this legal corpus - known as the "acquis" - is hard to convey. One study from Thomson Reuters estimates that the EU has passed 52,741 pieces of legislation since 1990, including 6,718 laws that affect the UK since 2010. The government places the figure much lower, at more than 12,000, while other sources list the number of Brussels' regulations at 19,000.

That alone does not do justice to the shadow that four decades of remote, international government will cast over the UK's economic future. The EU regulates such minute tasks as:

No fewer than 41 directives deal with the treatment of animals. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently boasted that the EU finally gave up a bid to regulate the flushing of toilets.

Everyday consumers have already paid a steep price for EU overregulation, whether they stem from the best motivations (worker safety, environmental preservation) or the worst (special interest lobbying and ideological extremism).

The think tank Open Europe calculated that EU regulations siphoned £13 billion ($16.2 billion U.S.) out of the UK's economy a year. The Telegraph reports that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which places high tariffs on imported food, “reportedly costs £10 billion in direct costs and by inflating food prices" annually. These analyses do not include another estimated 14.3 percent of all acts passed by the UK's Parliament from 1980 to 2009, which "incorporated a degree of EU influence."

By freeing itself of EU regulation, the UK can manifest another kind of European economic culture: one that frees the wealth-creating powers of the private sector by valuing innovation, growth, dynamism, initiative, entrepreneurship, subsidiarity, choice, and the traditional charitable role of intermediary institutions. This contrasts sharply with Brussels' economic culture: one that empowers global governance institutions by valuing regulation, preservation of the economic status quo, stability, bureaucracy pliable to the lobbying of labor unions and special interest constituencies, public-private "partnerships," centralization, and the social assistance (welfare) state.

Why would London wish to maintain this edifice after declaring independence? Should it do otherwise, the government warns, "UK’s statute book would contain significant gaps once we left the EU."

That is precisely what many British experts hope for. "Brexit gives us the opportunity: all regulations, but not directives, will fall away automatically," writes Tim Ambler at the Adam Smith Institute's blog. "The Great Repeal Bill White Paper has it the wrong way round: we should let them all go and invite Whitehall to re-present those we really need."

That would bring government ever-closer to the electorate. The white paper envisions a nation in which "power sits closer to the people of the UK than ever before" through "a significant increase in the decision making power of each devolved administration." Former Environmental Secretary Owen Patterson says clearing out EU regulation allows the British people to settle upon a path that is “tailored to what is right for us.”

That is the heart of subsidiarity, the social justice principle that no function should be undertaken by a higher level of government that can be handled by a lower order.

However, the government faces opposition within and without. Up to 1,000 EU statutes must be updated in order to work with the post-Brexit legal code. The government is asking Parliament for a form of deferred authority to rewrite them, invoking the “Henry VII clauses.” This has invited considerable skepticism - and concern that the Tory government will deregulate too much for the Labour Party's liking.

Ironically, UK Parliament is invoking subsidiarity to defend the concentration of power at the international level.

The EU also has no interest in a dynamic post-Brexit Britain that thrives after cutting ties - or that competes with it globally. European Council President Donald Tusk announced that, should the UK ask for a transition period to smooth the exit process for businesses, Brussels will demand that all EU "regulatory, budgetary, supervisory and enforcement instruments and structures [continue] to apply." Germany's deputy economy minister has insisted that post-Brexit London adopt a “reasonable framework” of tax and regulation, because “a race to the bottom in tax and regulation matters” - the Eurosocialists' term for freeing the economy from government intervention - “would make trade relations difficult.” The EU27 hope to impose enough regulatory burden on the UK's economy to "level" competition globally.

The scene calls to mind the words of the priest and philosopher Antonio Rosmini, who died more than a century before the founding of the EEC, the predecessor of the EU. "These legislators are inclined to let the government into all those enterprises that should be freely left to private industry," he wrote, "because they care very little about the damage that is caused to private entrepreneurs and to capitalists." (Quoted in Hoevel, "The Fiscal and Tributary Philosophy of Antonio Rosmini," Journal of Markets and Morality, Spring 2007.)

By heeding his words, the UK could show the transatlantic sphere a better model - and its people a future of greater flourishing.

(Photo credit: Descrier. This photo has been modified for size. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

He was managing