Audit shines 'non-committal' light on EU

"We will examine the balance of the EU's existing competencies."

That is the task that the government set itself in the coalition agreement back in 2010.

In plain English, it means that ministers promised to look at what the European Union does and how it impacts on the UK. In other words, it was a classic coalition compromise between pro-European Liberal Democrats and eurosceptic Conservatives. It was something to do with Europe that was non-controversial that both sides could agree on.

So it was not - despite what some Tory ministers and MPs think - part of a process of leading up to Britain's attempted renegotiation of our relationship with the EU, something that David Cameron has promised to put to a referendum by 2017.

That came much later. This review has simply been co-opted by the Conservatives to inform whatever they promise in their next general election manifesto about repatriating powers.

So we should not be too surprised when the first reports to emerge from this coalition process are somewhat uncontroversial. As was always intended, they reach no conclusions and contain no policy proposals.

Instead, they look at the first six out thirty or so areas of EU activity and tell us what some people think about what is going on. These areas were foreign policy, international aid, tax, the single market, health and animal welfare and food safety.

And the conclusion, according to the government official who is coordinating the work, is that most of the 500 individuals, groups and organisations who made a submission on these areas agreed that the current balance of competences between the EU and the member states is broadly appropriate.

All EU member states were invited to make a submission but only two chose to do so: Italy and Bulgaria. Most saw the process as a start of a negotiation over the future of Europe and chose not to reveal their hands so early on in the process.

So what we have a long list of statements along the lines of "on the one hand" and "on the other".

Take international aid. The report notes that £1.2 billion of UK aid is channelled through the European Commission. It says the advantages of working through the eu outweigh the disadvantages. Among the advantages, it notes that the EU is a platform for collective action on aid, there are economies of scale and global reach. But it also points to disadvantages: EU aid can result in compromise positions that do not give full effect to UK priorities. "EU development programme management and delivery are overly complex and inefficient" and EU does "not systematically measure the results that the EU aid achieves". It also points to an "unclear" division of roles between commission and EU diplomats "and there can be a lack of coordination".

How about taxation? The report says that most respondents conclude that the veto - in other words unanimous decisions - should be retained on EU-wide tax decisions, that tax should be primarily for member states, and that "EU tax is only appropriate where there is clear internal market justification and the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality have been satisfactorily been shown to be met."

But it also notes there are concerns about some parts of the EU trying to sneak in tax decisions via the back door: "Concerns expressed by respondents and interested parties focused on what they viewed as risks to the UK's tax sovereignty or national interests.

These included the inclusion of tax or fiscal measures in non-tax proposals which are not assessed by tax experts and undermine unanimity; the use of enhanced co-operation on tax measures which could have extra-territorial effects; and the impact of rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on domestic tax measures and Member State competence." (I include that sentence simply to show the jargon-filled density of these reports)

On foreign policy, most of the evidence, we are told, argued that it was strongly in the UK's interests to work through the EU in a number of policy areas.

But the respondents were scathing in their criticism of the EU's diplomatic service, known as the external action service. The report noted "the complicated web of different sources of EU foreign policy competence", scope for "disagreements over interpretation" and "tensions among member states and the EU institutions".

It also spoke of "uneven leadership, institutional divisions" and "slow or ineffective decision making due to complicated internal relationships and differing interests". The report then says there are overarching questions for the UK such as: "If the internal conditions of EU external action deteriorate, how will that affect our choices of how to deliver international impact in the British interest?

If the institution's performance does not improve, or if there is an undesirable shift in control away from the member states, such as a greater role for the European Parliament, how will we alter our approach, what will the constraints be, and how will we use or develop our other partnerships and alliances as alternative vehicles?"

When it came to animal health and food safety, most respondents supported the current balance of competencies but said there was room for improvement. So many said the internal market for food, animals and animal products had produced real benefits for the UK.

But civil society organisations with an interest in animal protection called for increased flexibility in EU legislation for the control of animal diseases to allow Member States the opportunity to take account of national circumstances. They felt that harmonisation at EU level was not always the best approach and in some cases may actually impede UK action.

On health, the report talks of a key benefit of EU membership being the sharing of information, such as on emerging infections and rare diseases. But even though most respondents thought the balance of competences broadly right, "there were specific concerns such as the working time directive's impact on the NHS".

It added: "There was a strong view that it is important to consult more with health departments and their stakeholders on these areas from the outset. A number of concerns were raised about the negative impact of the WTD on the NHS."

As for the single market, the report notes the "appreciable economic benefits" of Britain's membership but talks of a regulatory regime that some find "burdensome", with most observers concluding the benefits outweigh the costs.

So there we have it, the first six out of 32 non-committal reports, published deliberately without fanfare on a quiet Monday in July while MPs are not sitting with all eyes elsewhere.

There is lots of meat for eurosceptics and europhiles alike. Each can choose what they wish to further their arguments. But that is all. The debate may be more informed but it has not changed.