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September 06, 2004

EU Regulation: Why its stranglehold will tighten further

Posted by Hector Boffey

As a condition of entry the ten new members who joined the EU earlier this year were required to sign up to no less than 75,000 pages of regulations and directives, the whole of the so-called acquis communautaire. And the hyper-active regulatory machine in Brussels grinds on: in the first 11 months of 2003 the EU adopted 2,123 new regulations and 111 new directives.

The British Government has had to admit it does not know the precise number of regulations to which UK citizens are subject as a result of EU membership but independent analysts have suggested that this is likely to be in excess of 200,000.

As a consequence of this flood of restrictions and controls 60 per cent of national legislation is of EU origin, and this is likely to grow according to a study commissioned by the UK Government last year. It will grow still further once the EU Constitution is adopted since this will increase the number of areas in which the EU may legislate while bringing about a corresponding reduction in the powers of national governments. According to one independent survey, the net cost of implementing EU directives during the period 1999 to mid 2004 was £6 billion a year, and this is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades.

Although British newspapers poke fun at the absurdity and cost of much EU regulation - most famously the regulation governing the grading of cucumbers - they generally fail to grasp its full significance and impact.

As part of a unique service to readers the Social Affairs Unit publishes the following verbatim report of a private conversation between two senior Eurocrats - Maurice and Gerhard. It throws a revealing light on the operations of the EU and, in particular, the role of regulation:

Good holiday, Gerhard?

Interesting, Maurice, interesting. Went to Britain. Can't think why. The food was execrable, the transport system abominable and the weather indifferent. And you wouldn't believe the British tabloid press. It loathes us - loathes everything to do with the EU! And, as far as I could tell so do their dreadful readers, most of whom want to get out of Europe altogether. Do you know, according to our London Office, the Murdoch press invents non-existent EU regulations in order to discredit us! For example, it has even suggested that we have proposed regulations requiring farmers to produce square strawberries and straight rhubarb.

Oh dear, that is most unfortunate.

Absolutely, what chance do we have of winning the referenda on the Constitution when the British gutter press prints unsubstantiated allegations of that kind!

That's not what I meant Gerhard. The fact of the matter is that I have been working on a regulation governing the shape of strawberries for many months. I believe it represents a giant step forward on the 1987 Directive which was rather timid and only governs the size, class and condition of strawberries. My regulation goes much further.

Look Maurice, just in case that one comes up in committee, explain to me why the public interest is served by framing legislation governing the shape strawberries.

Public interest! Gerhard, how many times do I have to explain that that is term that is best reserved for the Commission President's speeches. The relationship between regulation and public interest is at best a tenuous one. Do no not trouble your head with it. What conceivable public interest do you think is served by insisting on regulation governing the shape of any fruit or food item? Do you imagine that the public is an imminent danger of being violently assaulted by undersize nectarines or misshapen cucumbers! Do old ladies cower at home in the dark for a fear of an insurrection by under-size Cox pippins? And what is true of regulations governing food is true of other regulations. What harm lurks in a pair of rubber boots or a kettle that is not accompanied by a comprehensive user manual as required by EU regulations. Would the public be harmed if Commission Regulation 2931/94 was abolished tomorrow? Let me remind you that Regulation 2931/94 – a magnificent regulation of which we shall all be proud - governs the payment of subsidies to rabbit breeders in the Canaries. Breeding, Gerhard, is an activity at which, like you, rabbits excel. It took pure genius to devise that one.

I don’t think I follow… if the purpose not to protect the public, what is it?

My friend, regulation - the 'Monet Method', as those present at the Creation like to call it – serves an altogether higher purpose. It is the hallowed means by which a unitary European state is being stitched together from disparate elements of the old nation states. In Britain, and to an even greater extent in the United State, regulation is regarded as a necessary evil or simply a nuisance; it has undeniably pejorative connotations. Not here, my friend. Regulation, a subject best approached reverentially, is the means by which the power and importance of Europe's supra-national institutions are growing day by day and the atavism and xenophobia of the old Europe is being destroyed. Thanks to regulation, Europe is taking giant steps forward. Think of the acquis communautaire as a living, breathing agent of change with the power to destroy the old order. I read the other day that some half-crazy British eurosceptic had described 'ever-closer union' as 'a coup d'etat in slow motion'. How right he is! And in this glorious bloodless revolution, regulation has the starring role. It doesn't matter a jot whether a new regulation throws up new problems or creates structures that don't work. Indeed, on balance, this may be to the good since it provides the pretext for further legislation, a process which has no end. I should remind you that regulation also serves to enhance the interests and power of the Guardians of the European Idea – you, and me and the other unaccountable servants of the Commission - to whom this vital work has been entrusted. Do you get my drift, Gerhard?

Of course, Maurice, and I apologise for being so obtuse.

Good. Now, you may have noticed a couple of well-heeled smoothies hanging around in reception. They are taking us to lunch at the Comme Chez Soi. They have got it into their heads that if suitably worded our proposed regulation on the packaging of widgets could keep smaller widget-producers out of the market and so give their clients a distinct advantage. So please no more mention of the public interest, especially over lunch. I can't, of course, guarantee that the flan at the Comme Chez Soi contains strawberries of regulation shape, but I can vouch for the fact that the lobster is wonderful. And no doubt our hosts can provide more of those 'spare' football tickets that you like to give to the numerous little Gerhards. Now, do you understand the vital contribution that regulation makes to the life of the EU?

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Disturbingly realistic.

Posted by: Tim Worstall at September 6, 2004 04:41 PM
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