A Motorcyclist’s view of the EU (Referendum lV)

I was having tea in the house of lords. As one does. With my MEP. My MEP was once my borough councillor and I have known her a long time.  They had just come back from a visit to the Baltic states investigating extraordinary rendition. ( the EU parliament is one of the few bodies which has seriously tried to get a handle on these wretched events). We were discussing her workload. “I get all these motorcyclists writing to me” she said. I coughed.

This is a Jawa motorcycle from Czechoslovakia displayed in the museum of communism in Prague.

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Its in many ways a wonderful museum although this exhibit failed to impress me as I have owned three of these machine ( Dubcek I, Dubcek II and Dubcek III) and taken them over the Alps, and to the south of France and the Algarve. Deliberately designed to be primitive and maintainable by a teenager on a Russian housing estate, the heel of their contact arm had a tendency to distort in the heat and set the timing off. I still remember coming out of the Pyrenees and, I swear, aquaplaning (those tyres) down the hill into Pau with the engine misfiring, putting my hand down to check that the spark plug had not come loose (the cap had cracked) and feeling the blast of the firing spark coursing through my hand. It’s cheaper than drugs.

Motorcyclists are a bolshie, independent and easily aggravated lot. Or maybe they’re not; maybe they’re a submissive and acquiescent lot with a bolshie nugget in them that colours the rest. I don’t know. But travelling at high speeds on a quite small machine with very small amount of protection makes them somewhat different from the majority of the population and not likely to be very keen on health and safety issues.

One of the things the “Leave” faction has to say is that they have been fooled. That they joined up to a free trade area and now they find themselves in a super-national state. That’s partially true although not exactly a trick. We have always known that some people were engaged on the “European Project” while others wanted to limit the EU to commercial relations. What I tried to suggest in my last blog was that actually the two things intermingle. The move towards a federal state is at least half driven by commercial realities. The idea of the EU as a free trade area is of a level playing field. You can’t have a level playing field while some people’s industries are state subsidised – hence the EU emphasis on competition law (which is where the threat to the NHS comes in although the NHS and other socially important functions have been exempt from EU competition law). You can’t have a level playing field while one country has important worker protections and the others are operating sweat shops – hence the EU emphasis of health and safety which extends to such things as maternity leave. You can’t have a level playing field when some people’s products are held to a different level of quality. You can’t have a level playing field when when some people are trained to a different standard.

Why are motorcyclists, or at least motorcycle organisations, in the UK (and a lot of other EU countries) opposed to the EU? Motorcyclists’ organisations are concerned: 1. to make motorcyclists choices as wide as possible – what they can ride, what they can wear and how they can act.: 2. to ensure a large motorcyclist population to support a vibrant and diverse motorcycle industry

First there is a project in the EU to make road safety better. And motorcycles are a major peak in KSI (killed and seriously injured) statistics. While motorcycles have very similar accident rates to bicycles their KSI rate is almost double.. There is actually a movement in the EU, especially the Nordic countries to ban motorcycles completely. The reaction of the commission has been to attempt to restrict motorcycle use and choice wherever possible. There are many aspects of this but we can see these:

  1. to make the motorcycle training more difficult. Now it has to be conducted off road at specified centres and there have been attempts to include difficult and dangerous manoeuvres such as braking while cornering.

  2. To restrict the power of machines, both absolutely and by introducing a complicated range of power specifications available to riders at different stages of their careers. Even though motorcycle accidents have no real connection to power levels.

  3. To restrict riders to machines made by large manufacturers and to prevent the alteration of machines by “after-market” modifications by making the manufacturing of such alternative parts too expensive (type approval) and by making such alterations (tampering) illegal.

  4. To specify behaviours such as making riders wear High-Vis clothing and using daytime lights.

The question is – is this over-regulation? And is this the business of the EU or should it be restricted to the individual countries? This is a particular example of regulation which is an objection and an irritant all over the EU in different spheres. I suppose everybody knows that the famous straight banana regulations don’t really exist but they are the metaphorical flag for numerous lesser but real examples.

But from the regulators’ point of view: shouldn’t a rider entering another state be trained to a common standard? If power levels are consonant with accident rates shouldn’t these be uniform across the EU ? If everybody has the right of free movement there is no room for the individual standards applied to each country. How can these be reconciled?

I think the answers for me – a motorcyclist and some-time motorcycle activist and a supporter of the EU are as follows:

  1. The resistance is not purely to the EU. It is to a highly regulated society and our own society (and maybe the entire world) has moved in this direction independently of the EU. When told that the EU is responsible for equality legislation and workers’ rights Brexiters often say that these would have been introduced here too. But that argument is a double edged sword for the same regulations they dislike and call red tape might as easily have been introduced by an independent Britain.  Motorcycle organisations are happy to use regulations themselves when they want to, for example in the “report-a-road” campaigns against potholes.

  2. We are still here and I am still riding. The EU is not immune to the voice of the common people or in this case, the activists’ drum. If motorcyclists have been a particular victim of what can be seen as over-regulation, they have been also extraordinarily successful as advocates in the EU legislature even though they have such powerful opponents. The EU  is not the same type of democracy that the UK recognises but it is not undemocratic . The parliament has far more of a scrutiny function than a legislature. Yet the parliament can be very powerful. In particular, anyone seeking to understand the EU legal situation has to look at the power of the Rapporteur, a position really without parallel in the UK and also at the pressure to compromise in the EU system, alien to the combative UK legislature.

  3. What motorcyclists have found is the importance of moving to a pan-European structure of activism. It is the FEMA that is important in Brussels rather than the BMF or MAG. Now that we have a British motorcycle industry again, selling motorcycles into Europe has become increasingly important. To leave the EU would also mean limiting that option.

  4. Finally, we are a very small tail to wag the dog.  Not everything can be made perfect.

I’ll leave you with an interview with a Norweigan motorcyclist which illustrates that in some way or another, even for those who intensely  dislike the EU, Europe is (one way or another) the only game in town.

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