LeaveHQ, 12/04/2016  

David Cameron 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. 

Bjorn Knudtsen, 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 committee.

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. 

Increasingly, 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 standards. 

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 trading practice. 

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 system. 

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.

Global trade 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 members. 

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. 

Some 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 government works. 

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 sectors. 

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 WTO agreement. 

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 officials. 

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 specifics. 

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 order". 

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