Is the EU now just a satire on itself?

The EU’s latest mad ban is revealing, suggesting it doesn’t even trust ordinary people to pour their own olive oil.

Rob Lyons

Topics World

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Is the EU just a long-running satire? Has it been a joke all along? After all, what other explanation could there be for banning olive oil in jugs in restaurants?

From 1 January 2014, restaurants and cafes will be banned from serving oil to diners in small glass jugs or dipping bowls. Instead, the oil will need to be served in pre-sealed, non-refillable bottles that must be disposed of when empty. It’s all in the interests of ‘hygiene’ and ensuring that diners aren’t short-changed by olive oil that has been diluted. Because, of course, that was a major problem. Clearly, it wasn’t good enough that diners might think ‘this olive oil isn’t very good, I might eat somewhere else next time’. No, apparently this non-problem urgently needed an excessive solution.

This wheeze was inspired by Europe’s olive-oil producers. Similar rules have been in place since 2005 in Portugal. Big producers of olive oil – the kind of firms that can afford to produce millions of small, branded bottles – will be delighted by the EU’s ban. However, it will increase costs for restaurateurs, who won’t be able to buy their oil by the barrel anymore and then pour it into a dish or jug. Lots more oil will go to waste in half-used bottles (so much for the EU’s legendary environmental concerns). Artisan olive-oil producers, who won’t want to deal in tiny bottles, will miss out, too. And who will end up coughing up for this regulation? You and me.

If the Portuguese want to indulge in such boneheaded regulation – perhaps they have a real problem on the Algarve with dodgy oil-dealing – that is for them to decide. But there is no merit in foisting such rules upon the rest of Europe. The new rule is so daft that even the Liberal Democrats – long the British branch of the EU fanclub – think it is a bad idea. Leading Lib Dem Danny Alexander, the UK treasury secretary, had to admit the new regulation was ‘pretty silly’.

Alexander defended the EU, however, by arguing that ‘silly rules are not the sole preserve of the European Union’; both Whitehall and local government have got form for pointless red tape, too, he said. That’s true, but why add another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy to the mix; another opportunity for a bunch of clueless bureaucrats to impose their policy obsessions on the rest of us? In an organisation as large as the EU, regulations become like currency, to be exchanged by one interest group with another. You can picture it now: ‘You support us in saying that X food product can only come from our region of France and we’ll support you in saying Y food product can only come from Leicestershire.’ The result? Lots more unnecessary rules imposed by people who are not accountable upon those who must abide by the rules and must pay for the costs.

It’s not just on food. For example, perverse, health-harming regulations on tobacco products are on their way, too (see The new EU directive: quit smoking or die). Or take the rules on internet ‘cookies’ – small files that identify a website user as unique in some way, store password information, and so on. EU rules in force since last year demand that websites ask you to accept these small files before continuing to use the site. Since cookies normally have little or no impact on privacy, and may even be crucial to how a website works, this is an unnecessary cost on web-based businesses and a constant irritation to website users.

These are fairly trivial examples, as it goes, but they do bring to the fore two political principles that seem alien to the EU but which the rest of us should stand up for. The first principle is that individuals who make rules and regulations that impact on a society should be accountable to the people who must follow those rules – for example, through the ballot box – and should have to justify the cost of such rules against all the other demands on society’s resources. The second principle is: when in doubt, don’t regulate. We need fewer laws, not more. A consumer, a business owner or a website user is far better placed to make these micro-judgements for himself, rather than having an ‘expert’ in a committee room deciding things on his behalf.

It would be nice to be able to contrast the pen-pushing petty authoritarianism of the EU with the vibrant democracy in Europe’s individual nation states. But sadly, we can’t. Alexander is quite right that Whitehall is just as full of civil servants with bees in their bonnets about one issue or another. No doubt, citizens in other EU countries tear their hair out over the latest stupid rule imposed by their elites, too. But at least the final say on any petty new national or local law will be in the hands of an elected politician, not a political appointee like an EU commissioner. That relationship with the country’s population is at least some check on the dumber and more draconian ideas that get floated these days.

What really underpins this endless meddling is a view of individuals as being too vulnerable to act in their own interests. To the rescue, we are told, comes the state, micromanaging our lives. In order to stem the tide of this relentless regulation, we need to stand up for ourselves as autonomous individuals capable of deciding how we want to live for ourselves. As it stands, the EU has such a rancid view of its citizens that we can’t even be trusted to pour our own olive oil.

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Topics World


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