Michael Gove made a welcome announcement of a UK ban on cosmetics that contain microbeads. The ban will protect fish and other marine life. But a British ban will not help the dolphins much – we are too small. If we stayed in the EU and used our influence to obtain an EU-wide ban then marine life would really benefit as all EU countries and those within its sphere of influence changed their rules. Poor dolphins – victims of Brexit.
The Government’s announcement
Michael Gove announced on 21 July 2017 that the UK will ban the production and then sale of cosmetics containing microbeads from 2018. Microbeads are small bits of plastic found in cosmetics that end up in the food chain and poison fish and sea mammals. We will join the select group of countries that have bans: USA, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Netherlands. What’s not to like about the reborn eco-warrior Gove?
We should not join the cynical chorus which doubts whether he means it. Let us look at structural questions.
Those who held that a ban could not be implemented in the EU because it would run counter to single market rules on the free circulation of products do not seem to have been proven right; or at least not yet.
What will be the effect on the economy? UK manufacturers will have to go over to micro-bead free production – at least in factories in the UK.
Foreign companies that have a bead-free product will sell it to the UK. Few manufacturers will think it worth the hassle of converting or running a separate production line just for the UK (though since the USA also has a ban we can piggy-back on firms manufacturing for that market).
So the ban will be a form of protectionism for UK firms (and firms in other countries that have implemented bans). Before the advocates of protectionism cheer, remember who loses: consumers, who will face higher prices, reduced quality and less choice.
But the fish will be happy, surely. Not much, though. A UK ban will delay their poisoning by microbeads but not end it. We are just not that big an economy.
Need for a strategic approach
Oddly, this pre-Brexit action was presented as part of making the UK a leader in environmental protection post Brexit.
We should approach this problem strategically. The problem is fish and dolphins dying of microbead poisoning. The solution is a global ban on microbeads. That would be hard to achieve.
But we could get a long way towards it if the UK stayed in the EU and argued for an EU ban on microbeads. That has reasonable prospects of success. EU countries are rich countries that care about the environment but do not wish to be undercut by less conscientious rivals. The EU bureaucratic machine takes its science seriously, when member states let it.
A ban in the world’s largest consumer market would materially reduce pollution. So it would make a real difference to the dolphins.
The EU as a regulatory magnet
The benefits go wider: the EU is a large enough market that third country firms would manufacture EU-compliant products.
Moreover, some companies would make all their manufacturing compliant irrespective of the destination market in order to keep processes simple. An analysis in the Financial Times shows that that has happened with the EU chemicals regulation REACH, where even some USA firms have become wholly REACH-compliant.
The idea of the EU as a “regulatory magnet” is developed by Erika Szyszczak in an article for the University of Sussex Trade Policy Observatory in the context of the EU/Ukraine association agreement.
Both examples show us of course that the UK will spend much of its future “fully sovereign” existence wondering what the EU will do, trying to influence (from outside) what the EU will do, and reacting to what the EU has done. Welcome to Brexit Britain as a suppliant nation.
EU action on the ozone layer
Conservative party traditionalists will wish to remember how instrumental Mrs Thatcher was in obtaining the global ban on CFCs to protect the Ozone Layer. One step on the way to the global ban was the EU-wide ban announced in 1992. It built on decisions already made by the UK and three other member states and took full effect in 1995 ahead of the schedule required by the Montreal Protocol. EU membership: it’s a proven method that works for better environmental protection.
Stay in the EU or Brexit? The answer is obvious. Ask the dolphins.
By Michael Romberg, a retired senior civil servant and a member of the Committee of London4Europe.