Bending the European ideal

Wherever two or three Eurosceptics meet to argue it out with supporters of the European Union, you may expect that at some point the conversation will turn to the curvature of bananas. The Eurosceptics will claim that EU law requires bananas not to be too bendy, while the EU supporters will insist that this is a myth put about to discredit the Union. Actually, it isn’t altogether a myth, to the extent that Commission Regulation 2257/94/EC, which came into force in 1995, provides that some bananas (so-called ‘extra class’ bananas) may not have anything more than ‘slight defects of shape’ and may not have ‘abnormal curvature’. EU supporters sometimes claim that this was repealed in 2008, but actually Regulation 1221 of 2008 does not make any reference to the above provisions.

The nature of EU regulations was more recently the subject of more unflattering commentary when the Commission proposed and then abandoned the idea of banning restaurants from using refillable jugs of olive oil.

As the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is debated with more and more urgency, and as discussions about the mission of the EU also also become more common in other member states, the question is increasingly asked whether the EU ideal has become submerged in avalanches of unnecessary bureaucratic interference. This is probably at the heart of the debate in the UK, and Britain’s continuing membership may depend on the extent to which a reform of the modus operandi of the Union can credibly be offered.

In fact, the volume of EU measures with legal effect is significant. During the first four months of 2013, a total of 4,422 legal acts and decisions were issued. These range from decisions in important cases, to measures such as a regulation on safety control in cosmetics, to a restriction on the use of vitamins and food supplements.

One of the reasons why it has become difficult to convince European citizens that they should increasingly take their sense of identity from the EU is because the EU does not display great skill in producing a vision. The relatively simple mission of the original European Economic Community – bind together former enemies and create a common trading area for them – has been lost in the complexity and bureaucracy that the EU has become.

The EU is perhaps still supported by a majority of its citizens – though it is hard to say this for sure – but it is manifestly unloved by them. On top of that, it is criticised by the left for pursuing an uncritical protection of free markets, and by the right for undermining those free markets. The time has come for the European Union to take stock of its strategy and methods, and to connect if it can with those whose lives it regulates, which it may find easier to do if it can be visionary without being too ambitious. And it should stop worrying about things like how restaurants serve olive oil. It really does not need to regulate everything. Less is more.

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17 Comments on “Bending the European ideal”

  1. V.H Says:

    Quite frankly the quicker England goes outside the EU the better.
    It would have the excellent result within the EU too. Since it would cause the system to quit bothering the rest of the people with nonsense.
    If England did vote for out though, I expect Scotland would see itself fully Independent soon after since the transfers are vastly more important to the Scots than to the citified English. Also absence of the CAP would hit more in Scotland and at a lower level since the owner occupier and crofter is in the tens to hundreds of acres rather that in England from hundreds to thousands


    • I think it’s not as simple as that. The popular English view of the EU is probably now shared by popular opinion in most European countries, with just the political establishment taking a different view. After all, the two EU referendums in the Netherlands and France failed. Opinion polls in Germany reveal a massively Eurosceptic population.

      I am instinctively pro-EU. But I am alarmed at how the community has lost its way.

  2. cormac Says:

    I’ve always tended to be pro-EU, partly because I think that sort of co-operation amongst nations is a very progressive idea in general, and specifically because in areas I know a little bit about – such as the environment – EU regulations tend to be much more progressive than our own. It is sobering to consider that almost all of the meaningful Irish legislation on protection of the environment was passed because of European decree. Another example is the relative success of the Eastern european nations under the framework – because of our own woes, it is easy to forget that a great many eastern european nations were in dire straits 15 years ago.

    In the UK, there tends to be a knee-jerk reaction to exactly the sort of EU regulation above.
    It seems to me that much of this euro-scepticism arises from a patriotic disinclination of a former world power to take orders from an international community, irrespective of whether the orders make sense or not. Add to that a natural disinclination of free market thinkers to centralization, and the ocassional inanities of central european government, and you have a real problem.
    (In fact, I’ve often noticed that UK Euro skeptics sound exactly like French farmers giving out about the Parisian government)

    On the other hand, there is no getting around the fact that the ‘occasional inanities’ of the EU market can be really serious, from the agricultural sector to fisheries. On Pat Kenny this morning, George Monbiot pointed out that the current system of CAP subsidies is extremely environmentally unfriendly, as in many instances it simply encourages small farmers to clear land rather than to grow crops. The Irish could point out that our fishing industry has been decimated by EU regulation. Another problem is the trade barriers posed by the EU to outsiders, particularly Africa. Instances like these do raise questions about the whole european project – however, I think the answer is to correct such anomalies, rather than ditch a project that has brought peace and prosperity (however patchy) to europe.

    Finally, the real advantage of an international body over squabbling nations is seen when a global threat comes along – such as climate change. Although we have a long long way to go, it is no coincidence that EU regulations on carbon emissions are far more progressive than those of most individual nation states. The actions of ndividual nations like Ireland and the UK will make almost no difference on an individual basis, but concerted EU action and diplomacy could make a very big difference worldwide…

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    As far as bendy bananas, curved cucumbers or chunky carrots are concerned it might be useful to consult The European Commission’s web page aptly called “Myths and rumours explained” where one reads that “The European Commission *was asked* by national agriculture ministers and the industry to draft legislation in this area.” http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/communication/take_part/myths/fact_033_en.htm
    For more debunked EU myths see http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/communication/take_part/myths_en.htm It makes for entertaining reading – and very poor journalism.

    Also, set against the mockery is a growing body of evidence which doesn’t try to justify every individual decision, or mistake, but to make a wider argument about the value of the European project and joined-up European spending. A website set up by the European spending watchdog Bankwatch and two environmental charities, WWF and Friends of the Earth Europe, http://www.wellspent.eu/ hosts a map and list of projects they consider to be “benchmark” schemes for well-judged, well-managed spending. Obviously it is unlikely that the Wellspent.eu is ever going to feature in the Daily Mail!

    What we tend to forget when we discuss the EU is that it reflects, often as a distorted mirror image, its member states. Much could be said about the crisis of the nation-state as a concept, a crisis which globalization has dramatically brought to the fore, such crisis needs to be addressed by devising new governance models which make European institutions more efficient and democratically representative, instead of tackling such challenges national governments cynically use the EU as a scapegoat in order to score political points with their internal electorate. If what the EU lacks is vision, it is because it is not ambitious enough (how can you be visionary without being ambitious, as argued in the post?), petty burocracy, a distorted view of competition which puts countries one against the other in matters which demand collegiality (tax evation for big corporations, climate change, to name a few) and lack of statesmanship qualities of key national leaders are detrimental to the whole idea of Europe, and ultimately to ourselves (let’s not forget that although the Treaty of Rome created an economic market, the ideal of the United States of Europe has a long historical pedigree http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_of_Europe)

    The European project has never been exclusively about business opportunities, it is also and foremost the best tool we have as a *community* of nations to promote social rights, democracy, human rights and civil society, and combating discrimination.
    I would expect that when it comes to the UK in particular, academics and university leaders make their voices heard loud and clear by stressing the benefits which derive from being a member state, today’s article by Cambridge academic Athene Donald in The Guardian is exactly what is needed http://gu.com/p/3g64k/tw
    ‘Less is more’ might be the golden rule of style and good taste, however when it comes to the EU, I think we need, more, *better* Europe.


    • Anna, I used to take that view, but I no longer do. I still want to be in the EU, but I have come to the view that it cannot succeed (and probably should not) as a super-regulator. It actually doesn’t reflect the member states any more, and it really cannot because there are too many of them. You cannot possibly, in one set of community institutions, reflect member states with such diverse traditions and customs. Something that adequately reflects Germany and Denmark (say), cannot possibly also reflect Greece and Portugal. And this is at the heart of the growing movement of euro-scepticism, which is now the one ‘uniting’ view of the EU across different member states. As we look to the EU to solve all problems, even those it is singularly ill-equipped to address, we also increasingly conclude it is incapable of doing its business.

      The original vision of the EEC was compelling. We lost that.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        So what are you proposing exactly, what should be the EU ‘vision’ today, if not one which puts at its core civil society and the social and human rights of its citizens, no matter whether they are Germans or Portuguese? One which gives us a collective blueprint to address the global problems we face? Our nation states are insignificant political entities if compared to the influence that the BRIC countries can exert. Our traditions and customs make us who we are, however they are not immutable, even at national level they have evolved over time, why shouldn’t that happen at European level as well? As for Euro-scepticism, it is a complex, and by no means recent, phenomenon it cannot be reduced to one single cause, even an hasty glance at the literature on the topic confirms that to be the case.

        If the EU doesn’t *reflect* the member states any more, that is not because there are too many of them, but because the mechanisms of democratic representations are not working, the balance of powers for example between the various institutions, say commission and parliament is flawed. It’s not a question of quantity, but of quality, you cannot dismiss the validity on the original principle on that basis alone, what you have to do is to move the vision with the times and device suitable governance to serve the changed circumstances. We cannot fall prey of resignation and accept the loss of the original vision while lamenting the lack of a current one, we owe to our future generations of European citizens to do better than that!

  4. Eddie Says:

    Ferdinand: “I used to take that view, but I no longer do. I still want to be in the EU, but I have come to the view that it cannot succeed (and probably should not) as a super-regulator. It actually doesn’t reflect the member states any more, and it really cannot because there are too many of them. You cannot possibly, in one set of community institutions, reflect member states with such diverse traditions and customs. Something that adequately reflects Germany and Denmark (say), cannot possibly also reflect Greece and Portugal. And this is at the heart of the growing movement of euro-scepticism, which is now the one ‘uniting’ view of the EU across different member states. As we look to the EU to solve all problems, even those it is singularly ill-equipped to address, we also increasingly conclude it is incapable of doing its business.

    The original vision of the EEC was compelling. We lost that”

    I never thought that I would ever agree with Ferdinand. The above is an excellent summary of what people in countries like England, Germany, Netherlands and France want, and not what the Brussels corrupt officialdom wants. Since when the EU/EC has let their accounts properly audited? The Euro became a virile symbol for certain countries as their national currencies were like monopoly funny money before- I am not talking about Germany, France,and Netherlands. My last visit to Germany and France was just a few days ago. In Germany, I could hear loud and clear that the grand EU project has failed. And, French are becoming more Eurosceptic than Germany. This is so far removed from what mere chattering crowd/academic mob want people to hear. In Germany, they are fed up with the bail outs and the responsibility to hold the countries together in the “deluded Eurozone” ( my German friends’ words, not mine), as countries after countries spent what they did not have. They want Germany out and have their mighty DM back. These were the ones who wanted Germany tied to EU, considering their history. Well, I cannot argue against them. As for Scottish Independence, not going to happen, if the polls are right.

  5. OMF Says:

    I don’t support the euro, but I do support the EU. However, I am losing patience with both. If things keep going, I will not support either of them.

  6. cormac Says:

    As regards the comments by Eddie and Ferdinand, it seems to me that much of the evidence presented of ‘widespread euroskepticism’ is anecdotal. How does one measure such things? For example, Eddie’s view of German euroscepticism certainly doesn’t represent my own anecdotal experience of friends and relations in Germany.
    However, assuming for the sake of argument that such euroscepticism is indeed rampant, how much of it is ‘natural’, and how much is driven by media and by local politics ? There is no question that the success of UKIP has caused the UK Tories to re-examine their position, but how much of that is aping a party that is currently making waves, how much is Tory ideology, and how much is a pragmatic objection to the eu?
    I think there is a lot of truth in Anna’s point that politicans tend to use the eu as a scapegoat in local issues, a practice that makes it very difficult to have a balanced conversation on the issue

  7. Eddie Says:

    Funny, if the Europhiles, the Guardian and Guardianistas et al. and the political leaders at the centre of the EU dogma like to test the Euroscepticism, instead of saying that they know best why not ask their people in referendums whether they would like to live in the Eurozone first and then in the EU? The one thing, these political leaders fear is the democratic mandate to test how relevant the EU concept is today. No use in blaming Tories and UKIPs-that is simplistic and ignorance. France and Netherlands voted No on issues, and this was ignored. A sign of fear of giving votes to people to get their mandate on anything related to the EU in countries like Germany, France, Netherlands and in England.

    In Germany, Euroscepticism is rampant across the political spectrum; it is palpable in a chat, and in France too. In England, many in the left too question this concept itself (except some political leaders in Labour, Libdems, and ofcourse the Guardian and Guardianistas, but then they have always been middle class, independent school- educated indulging forever in pontification).

    Slowly and surely grandees like Oscar Lafontaine reject the Euro, and dig deep they will agree what a bad idea the EU was (is). The UK is not going to be involved in the Euro; but wait until the Eurozone tightens up yet more in terms of political and fiscal agendas whence the budgets of Eurozone countries are scrutinised every year. What kind of independence /sovereignty will that be? The Eurozone fall out is already having increasing impact on the very idea of the EU, not surprising people in the above 4 countries do not like the look of the EU animal now.

    As I said the only countries which would like remain in the Eurozone and in the EU are the economically weak, the bailed out countries, and these are the ones which had monopoly currencies. They could stay in the New Eurozone and in the New EU if they want to, and enjoy their Euro.

  8. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    It’s funny how the EU has become so unpopular since the Great Recession started. Free trade, immigration, competitive taxation policies, a common currency and transparent regulations are seen as the cause and not the solution to the inevitable decline of former colonial powers. Given the UK’s abysmal economic performance out of the euro, I dread to think what would have happened if it had joined, and couldn’t devalue by 25%?

    In reality, there’s a lack of nerve out there and I’m beginning to sense that I’d rather just tear the whole thing up- and start again- than go for half-baked reforms which will only inflame tensions.
    However, none of this rearranging of deck chairs will solve the fundamental long-term economic challenges: demographic decline, low productivity, corruption, lack of natural resources and the rise of Asia.

    Finally, let’s say that the plethora of EU regulations are expunged. The likelihood is they will be replaced by 27 national versions of pretty much the same thing. A victory to democracy and common sense or just the unnecessary proliferation of expensive, useless regulation?


    • I agree these are the long term challenges, but there is pretty well no evidence that the EU has grasped how to tackle them, and the vacuum is mostly being taken up by Germany. That’s not really the way to go.

      As for regulation, it is much easier to subject that to democratic scrutiny and adjustment when it is conducted closer to the local electorate. The quality of national regulation would be different.

      • no-name Says:

        You write, “As for regulation, it is much easier to subject that to democratic scrutiny and adjustment when it is conducted closer to the local electorate. The quality of national regulation would be different.”

        However, it is difficult to believe that you really think that the provinces are better run, or have more nimble democracies, when not subjected to regulation by the EU. Even with the EU looking over its shoulder, Ireland tolerates a Minister for Justice who does not respect the Data Protection Act (setting aside that it supports a European Commissioner who professes not to be bothered to read things like the Lisbon Treaty before recommending them to the electorate).

        • Anna Notaro Says:

          You pick up on a very interesting issue, which makes me wonder: is democratic scrutiny of regulations, in principle, harder to realize at a multi-national level than at national one? Why so? I’m guessing Ferdinand ‘s view refers to the concept of the “democratic deficit” within the European Union.

  9. cormac Says:

    Re Eddie’s last comment above, I think labelling the arguments of others as “simplistic and ignorant”, and making generalizations about “Guardian readers” is not helpful to thoughtful debate, and is very out of place on this blog

    • Eddie Says:

      If those arguments are produced not based on facts but on prejudices, then my response is correct. Prejudices have no place in any blog.

      • Eddie Says:

        I should have also added that there is a concerted effort to ridicule and knock down England and what it stands for today -that is what I mean by prejudices. I can see this particularly in this blog from a section of posters.


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