and the Remain campaign say that our place is at the "top table"
in order to pursue our national interest, and that includes the EU.
However, in an
ever increasing area of regulation the EU is no longer the top table. A prime example of this is food standards,
which makes recent fear
mongering in this area seem absurd.
Chairman of the Fish and Fisheries Product Committee, makes clear that when it
comes to international rules on food, to ensure public safety and fair trading,
the UN body Codex Alimentarius, is the "top table".
As we described
in an earlier piece,
Codex is one of "three sisters" of international standard setting
organisations recognised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) "Sanitary
and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement", which together formulate global rules
to protect human, animal and plant life or health.
In 2013, stopping off on Bristol to hear his wife deliver a conference on
public health, Mr Knudtsen was on his way from Norway to Rome, to attend the
annual Codex executive
As one of the
regional heads of his country's Food Safety Agency, and the Codex committee
chairman, he agreed to talk to us about the vital role of Codex, its
relationship with the EU and with Norway and the EEA, and its task in making
the rules that govern international trade.
What makes this particularly relevant is the ongoing controversy about the
so-called fax law
and Mr Cameron's claim that – like Norway - we would be governed "by
fax" from Brussels if the UK quits the EU.
As Mr Knudtsen pointed out, though, Norway – at least in his area of speciality
– is not governed in this way, even though, paradoxically, most of the law
covering fish and fisheries products does come from Brussels.
The paradox is explained by the way Codex works. Mr Knudtsen's committee is
170-strong, with 50-60 countries most interested in seafood. The committee was
established in 1963 and, with the active participation of the members,
formulate the rules which the WTO accepts as the basis for trade.
member states and trading blocs – such as the EU - are adopting Codex standards
as the basis for their own regulations, and are gradually undergoing a process
where existing regulations are being changed so that they match Codex
Thus, we have a process where standards are generated by member states working
with this international body, for adoption by Codex. Often the EU (as indeed
are other trading blocs) promotes their regulations, trying to get them
accepted as the Codex standard, but the dominant driver is the science. This
determines the standards necessary to protect public health and ensure fair
Says Mr Knudtsen, a draft regulation may take 6-8 years to go through the
system until it is finally approved, usually by consensus. Although there is a
complex voting system, votes are usually avoided as being divisive. If there is
not complete agreement, the preference is to rework the draft until all parties
do agree. And, at any stage, a member state can veto a provision, through an
informal process or, formally, by calling for a vote.
When it comes to Norway, trade in fish and fisheries products is a vital
national interest, with 95 percent of products, worth €3 billion annually,
being exported. And as an exporting country, says Knudtsen – like other major
exporters – strict regulatory standards are a necessary and acceptable price to
pay for what he terms "certainty".
Companies preparing a product for export will not know from the outset the
destination of any particular batch. Therefore, they want to be able to produce
to a generic standard which will be accepted in any and every country to which
the product might be despatched. They don't want to be producing different
batches to different standards.
But when it comes to framing those rules, Norway is fully involved right from
the outset. It even pays approximately £250,000 a year to host the Codex
fisheries committee. That gives Norway no specific advantage, Knudtsen says,
but he agrees that it gives them what might be called "situational
awareness" – an early and complete insight into what is going through the
Once the Codex standard is agreed, a hierarchy is created. Knudtsen openly
admits – without the least hesitation – that Codex, and international bodies
like it, form part of world government.
requires global rules, and they produce them, handing them back to member
nations and trading blocs such the EU and NAFTA, as well as the Asian blocs.
With the EU though, it also deals with the EEA, of which Norway is a member. We
thus have a situation where the EU takes the Codex standards and in turn uses
them as the basis of its own rules for its members and the additional EEA
At no stage, therefore, can it be said that Norway is simply the passive
receiver of rules from Brussels. His country, says Knudtsen, has been involved
at every step of the process from inception to the final formulation of the
rules. Brussels then adds the EEA "packaging", before passing it on,
but the substantive issues have been agreed long before the standard formally
reaches the EU. In no way, and at no time, does Norway ever feel that the rules
have been imposed on it.
commentators, even in government, believe that the output from international
bodies such Codex Alimentarius, and its sister organisations such as the
OIE and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), are simply
guidelines, which can be accepted or rejected as the mood takes.
These three organisations, however, are a central element to the Sanitary and
Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, itself a central part of the WTO structure –
but how they inter-relate is crucial to understanding how our new global
As Bjorn Knudtsen told us when we met, the chain
starts with the WTO, which is host to the international trade agreements, upon
which modern trade relations are founded. However, contrary to popular
perception, the WTO itself does not make detailed trading rules. Instead, it
relies on organisations such as Codex to make them in their specific
Then, in the case of a trading dispute, where a country is erecting trade
(non-tariff) barriers, the WTO explores whether there is an international
standard or agreement which covers the issue. If there is, conformity with
international standards is deemed sufficient to permit the relevant products to
be traded. Refusal to admit conforming products is deemed to be a breach of the
Thus, while there is no compulsion for individual countries to adopt
international standards, they have become the "pass" which permits
free trade. The pressure is on, therefore, for each country within the
international community to adopt these standards into their own domestic law.
Increasingly, throughout the world, this is what is happening. We are moving
towards a standardised, global rule book.
As to the UK, in theory it is represented by the EU on most international
standards bodies. This is certainly the case with Codex where, in the
main committee, the member state currently holding the presidency – at the
moment Ireland – formally negotiates on behalf of the 27 member states, and
approves new standards. In this, they are "assisted" by Commission
However, the process is much more subtle than this. While the main committee in
plenary session is the body of record, the real work goes on in the sub-groups
and the task forces. There, individual member states are well-represented and,
interestingly, are not accorded any preferential treatment according to who
they are or their membership of any particular bloc.
Thus, the powerful sit cheek-by-jowl with the minnows. Says Knudtsen, anyone
who has a view and wants to be heard is given a hearing. But the most
influential are those who have the expertise and understand the system. In that
sense, he says, the UK has more influence on the seafood committee than Norway.
Delegates are skilled in the procedures, are experienced in the workings of the
committee and bring with them considerable expertise in a wide range of
subjects. They are "very good diplomats", Knudtsen agrees.
This has startling implications for British membership of the EU, and any
ambitions it might have to align itself with any other grouping, such as EFTA.
The UK enjoys its influence by virtue of the capabilities it brings to the
table, which earns it respect and prestige. If it maintained its performance,
it would be treated the same, and have roughly the same reach, whether it was
in the EU or not.
The point is that, in this "new world order", no single nation or
bloc is going to get its way. The Europeans are balanced by the North Americans
who are increasingly having to deal with the Cairns grouping and powerful Asian
alliances. Getting standards through the system requires compromise, and the
need to have an agreement often outweighs the requirements for achieving
In or out of the EU, the UK – or its representatives - would still find itself
sitting in endless, impenetrable technical committees, discussing obscure
standards on issues which would defeat most minds, alongside much the same
people, with very much the same outcomes.
But in no sense would standards ever be imposed on the UK, any more than they
are Norway. That simply is not the way the system works. What would be
different is that the UK would be able to divest itself of much of the
political baggage that attended membership of the European Union. Trade issues
would continue to be negotiated in much the same way that they are now.
What comes over so clearly is that the world has moved on from the days when
"Europe" was a powerful player, setting the rules for its tiny
corner. In fact, without it really being apparent, the "new world
order" is seeing a resurgence in national power.
When I asked him whether he would like his own people, his "global
policemen" to enforce his standards, Knudtsen said "no". The
nations still made the rules, he said. Only they had the local knowledge, the
resources and experience to enforce them. And as long as the rules were seen to
be fair, and achieving a purpose, they were generally enforced.
The world is moving on from regional trade blocs and, as trade becomes more
globalised, there are too many players for "little Europe" to get its
way. Each of the national players want their own voices heard in the areas
which concern them. The global arena not only recognises that need. It allows
for it. The "global government" is a forum of nations.
The UK loses no
influence by being an independent member of that "new world