Euromyths (8/10): They straighten bananas for your own good
1 August 2012
De Groene Amsterdammer
The EU is often said to regulate on the tiniest things, from the curve of a cucumber to the size of chocolate eggs. But is this a truly useless activity? In its continuing series on euromyths, De Groene Amsterdammer sets the record... straight.
Idiotic regulations which make things unnecessarily complicated for businesses. There are so many complaints about this, that the European Commission has set up a special website to negate almost seventy "euro myths", usually from British newspapers.
There are plenty of examples. How long is the ladder of a painter allowed to be? How big can a "Kinder Surprise" chocolate egg be? What curve is a banana allowed to have? Does Brussels really have to regulate all these things?
If you want a free internal market: yes. The Twente-based lawyer Ramses Wessel calls it ironic, but "the freer you want the market to be, the more rules you need." Yes it's a paradox, in the view of Ghent-based political scientist Hendrik Vos, but "there is a reason why the EU regulates what at first instance appear to be minutiae."
Take the "Kinder Surprise" egg, which has to comply with very specific requirements: the size of the inner egg is fixed and the two halves have to be attached to a little hinge. Why? Vos: "A few years ago a baby in one of the member states choked on a Kinder Surprise toy. Some countries called for them to be prohibited, while other countries did not want that. Then you have a problem on one European market."
“Detractors are splitting hairs”
All products must satisfy the same conditions, otherwise there is unfair competition. In agriculture in particular the conditions are strict. For each product it is described how it is to be cultivated; from spreading manure to what constitutes a good cucumber (not too curved).
Pim van Ballekom, former chief of staff for Frits Bolkestein who dealt with these types of rules for years, admits that in the first instance they do often sound stupid, but that they are really necessary to combat protectionism of member states.
For example, Brussels' requirements for the catches on boilers. Van Ballekom: "At first I though: what nonsense. But without these rules you allow countries to close off their market. Then Italy demands that only boilers with an Italian catch may be sold." Regulations keep the market open and according to Nico Groenendijk they are ultimately advantageous for the consumer.
Public administration scholar Bernard Steunenberg: "Naturally some odd directive or provision in a directive will pop up, but these are exceptions. Detractors are splitting hairs." That there are very many regulations is by no means a myth – for example, the number of European decisions in the past thirty years increased from 1,300 to over 17,000, and the number of active directives trebled. That the majority of these decisions are useless, is a fable.
Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom