Last night I attended a meeting in the Strasbourg parliament of the Industry Committee, ITRE, which had been called for a hearing to approve a new Industry Commissioner, Mr. Ferdinando Feroci. He will be replacing the previous Italian incumbent Antonio Tajani, who has had to step down as Commissioner, having been elected to the European parliament. But of course a whole new Commission will be sworn in in about four months’ time, so poor Mr. Feroci gets to sit in the seat for a very limited time, in which he will be able to achieve very little, except to keep the ship on course. The whole thing was a mere formality, and arguably a waste of time.
Mr. Feroci was previously Italy’s Ambassador to the EU, so we know which side his bread is buttered. As a wise man once said, it’s very difficult to convince a man of something when his job and his income depend upon his not believing it.
Nonetheless, Mr. Feroci treated us to a well-known European parliament tradition: The Ritual Repetition of the Clichés. Growth. Jobs. Economic Recovery. Sustainable Development (although, as we’re seeing, “sustainable development” is proving to be anything but sustainable). SMEs. Youth unemployment. Innovation. Research. Training and education. Competitiveness.
All these are desiderata devoutly to be wished, but Mr. Feroci had few practical ideas for achieving them, beyond a reference to “instruments”. This is Brussels-speak for EU funding lines and programmes, as if government borrowing and spending could solve all our problems.
There was at least a welcome hint of realism dawning. As an example of the Commission’s new-found commitment to deregulation, he mentioned the EU chemicals directive REACH. It was (he admitted) cumbersome, bureaucratic and expensive – a huge burden on industry, and especially on those SMEs. It was costing jobs, stifling innovation, restricting growth. So he was determined to see it streamlined. Well and good. But the tragedy is that back in 2006, I and other colleagues were warning the Brussels institutions that this was the inevitable consequence. If only they’d listened then to the voices of common sense, they could have avoided vast economic damage. (The same comments also apply, of course, in spades, to the €uro currency, a reckless economic adventure that has caused a great deal more damage than REACH).
Several questions were asked about energy prices. And Mr. Feroci has a plan. We need more emphasis (he says) on energy efficiency, and on completing the Single Market in energy.
Perhaps he doesn’t realise that competitiveness cannot live in a vacuum. It is relative. You can only be competitive against someone else. Has it not crossed his mind that other major economic areas – China, the USA – are also concerned about energy efficiency, and optimising their marketing and distribution arrangements? So our efforts in Europe, even if successful, will merely maintain our current level of disadvantage.
It’s time to recognise that the huge discrepancy in energy prices arises from our gross over-commitment to expensive, inefficient and intermittent renewables, while our competitors rely largely on cheap coal or (potentially) cheap gas. Until we address that fundamental point, Europe can never hope to be competitive in energy. In the UK, only UKIP has a policy to deliver secure and affordable energy.
I’ve said it many times, but it cannot be repeated too often. We won’t solve Europe’s problems with new initiatives, new instruments, new policies. We’ll solve Europe’s problems by unwinding the damaging policies of the past. Energy policy, and REACH, are prime examples. If you want the grass to grow, first get the rocks off the lawn.
In the format of last night’s meeting I was unable to ask a question. Had I been able to do so, I would have said: “Mr. Feroci: A few months ago Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said that Europe can no longer afford a unilateral climate policy. And your predecessor Antonio Tajani said that energy prices were creating an industrial massacre in Europe. Do you agree with them? And what will you do about it?”.