TEARING up red tape has long been a dream for those who want to leave the European Union. The belief that business is stifled by Brussels bureaucracy is powerful. Yet ask those subject to the rules and you get a different picture. A new report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), based on interviews with thousands of the business lobby’s members, small and large, finds that in areas ranging from aerospace and energy to life sciences and telecoms there is no great wish for a bonfire of European regulations. Instead, as Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s boss, puts it, the opportunities for divergence in a few areas are “vastly outweighed” by the costs of deviating from rules needed to ensure smooth access to the EU market.

These days regulations and standards matter more than tariffs for frictionless trade. That is why companies that trade with the EU, by far Britain’s biggest market, fret about the erection of non-tariff barriers. And it is not only big exporters that are concerned. EU regulations affect their supply chains, right down to the smallest firms, as well as seemingly unrelated sectors. The CBI report makes clear, for example, that compliance with the EU’s REACH chemicals regime and data-protection standards is crucial for carmakers and consumer-goods firms alike.

A second finding is that most firms like the predictability of EU rules. The report calls the EU’s single market, based on some 19,000 legislative acts, the world’s most sophisticated rulemaking entity. That is why many EU standards are becoming global ones. What British firms fear is having to comply with a second set of domestic regulations as well. It would be difficult and expensive to replicate the EU’s regulators for airlines, medicines, food standards, nuclear safety and so on. That is one reason why Theresa May’s government hopes to be able to stay in many such agencies.

However, the CBI report also identifies some areas in which divergence from EU rules may be possible and even prove beneficial. These mainly concern industries that are not directly involved in cross-border trade, such as ports, shipping, tourism and water services. For some of these, EU rules, including environmental ones such as some recycling targets, are seen as unhelpful in British conditions.

Similarly, although mutual recognition or regulatory equivalence would not be as good for professional and financial services as passports that create a right to do cross-border business, they could work. Some aspects of farming might be better managed with an eye to domestic practices. And EU rules for public procurement could be tweaked. The openness of the British defence market to foreign suppliers sometimes lets EU firms use the system to disadvantage local competitors.

A final conclusion is aimed at Brussels as much as Westminster. The CBI wants post-Brexit Britain to keep some role in setting rules that it will continue to be affected by. Besides financial services, Britain’s share of European output in aviation, broadcasting and the creative industries is disproportionately high. The report says it would be absurd to give it no influence over how such businesses are regulated. Although most analysts see it as optimistic to expect a non-member to have much say, this ambition points to a relationship that is more like Norway’s close alignment with the EU than Canada’s more distant one based on free trade alone. Yet the EU will point to Mrs May’s “red lines” of leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice, and say these make it impossible to give Britain more than a Canadian-style deal. That would mean mere associate-membership of some EU agencies and no say in rulemaking. For the same reasons it has rejected Mrs May’s “three-basket” proposal, under which Britain would get to pick which sectors it wants to keep in line with EU rules and when to diverge from them.

The government might get a better response if it started from a presumption of close alignment. Ms Fairbairn fears that a Canadian-style agreement would scarcely be better than no deal. She wants negotiations on the future relationship to be based on pragmatism, not ideology. Sadly, there is little chance of that—on either side.