|Montreal, July 15, 2004 / No 144|
by Ralph Maddocks
Those of us who complain about the increasing regulation of our lives in Canada or the USA should take the trouble to investigate the regulatory activities of the European Union which issues a seemingly never-ending stream of edicts which must be followed by the participating members of that union.
As readers will already know, the EU underwent an historic enlargement on May 1st last, when ten countries from Central Europe and the Mediterranean became members at the stroke of midnight. This raised EU membership from 15 to 25, increased the surface area covered by the EU by one quarter and increased its population by one-fifth, to 450 millions. The EU is now, in population terms, the world's biggest single market, although the North American Free Trade Agreement area remains larger in terms of its economic power.
The new countries joining in May were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia,
Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The existing
group of 15 consisted of the original six which combined to become the
European Economic Community in 1958, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg
and the Netherlands. In 1973, the six became nine when Denmark, Ireland
and the UK joined what had become known by then as the European Community.
In 1981, Greece became a member state and in 1986 the group increased to
12 when Portugal and Spain joined. The fourth enlargement occurred in 1995,
when Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the club, which by then was known
as the European Union. The next increase is likely to see an additional
two states, Bulgaria and Romania, joining in 2007 with Croatia perhaps
in 2009. The twenty ninth state which could join is Turkey which has not
yet started talks on membership the EU will decide this year whether
to begin them in 2005.
The EU Parliament consisted of 626 seats until June 2004, 732 seats after June and 786 seats after Bulgaria and Romania join. This number will decrease in 2009 meaning that most of the old member states will have fewer Members of the European Parliament and, in November, when the European Commission increases to 25 members from its present 20, five of the larger states will lose their second commissioner. MEPs are chosen in national direct elections, held every five years but they have no real legislative power and cannot take legislative initiatives. Only in very limited policy areas can the European Parliament veto council decisions and in most cases, the final decision lies with the Council of Ministers whose meetings take place in secret. All of which makes one wonder what use the EP is, except perhaps for rewarding a country's discarded politicians.
The European Commission is the pivotal institution of the EU, having the privilege of initiating new EU legislation and overseeing the implementation of legislation approved by the Council of Ministers. Its members are appointed for five years with the unanimous decision of the EU member states. The commission defines itself as "the institution whose vocation is the completely impartial representation of the general interest." However, not all commissioners (and their directorates) have equal political power, something which has led to very strange goings on in the past.
Council of Ministers, another part of the EU gravy train, is the legislative body of the EU and all directives and regulations proposed by the Commission must have final approval by the council ministerial representatives of all member states. (Environment Council, Agricultural Council, etc.) In some fields, council decisions must be unanimous, in others there is qualified majority voting where the votes of ministers from different member states carry varying weights. The proceedings of the Council of Ministers are not open to the public and some 90% of council decisions are taken before the ministers even get involved. A shining example of open government. The European Council is composed of the heads of state, or governments, plus the President of the European Commission. They meet at least twice a year to decide on the medium- and long-term political goals of the EU but it does not decide on directives and legislation. The presidency of the council rotates every six months.
Meetings of the Council are prepared by working groups, which consist mostly of national diplomats. COREPER, the French acronym by which the Permanent Representatives Committee is known, consists of the Member States' Permanent Representatives (Ambassadors) and is responsible, at the preliminary negotiation stage, for assisting the Council of the European Union in dealing with the items on its agenda (proposals and drafts of instruments put forward by the Commission). This body occupies a vital position in the Community decision-making system, in which it is at one and the same time a forum for dialogue (among the Permanent Representatives and between them and their respective national capitals) and a body which exercises political control (by laying down guidelines for, and supervising, the work of the expert groups). The smooth running of the Council is dependent on the standard of the work done in COREPER.
One can imagine quite easily the time which will be consumed by meetings with 25 countries at the table, meetings which will of necessity take longer and where decisions will become harder to reach. The word gridlock comes to mind. Of course it may slow down passage of some of the more egregious legislation to emerge from the EC, an outcome which is devoutly to be wished. The newly arrived states are likely to resist any new EU initiatives which could cost them more than they can afford, because in general the new countries have an average GDP of 40% of the average level in the former 15 member states. Some though are richer than others, Cyprus and Slovenia being at the top of the ladder, with 70% or more of average EU wealth levels, while Latvia is on a lower rung at 35%.
One side effect of enlargement has been to dilute the influence of France and Germany, which often acting together, dominated the old EU. There are some signs that in order to compensate for this they may be hoping to work more closely with the UK instead of against it as they did so often in the past. This is in part because the new member states are generally more pro-American than some of the older EU member states such as France.
Those in Canada who complain of the costs and some of the paradoxes created by federal bilingualism should be thankful that they do not inhabit the EU. Since enlargement, the European Commission is going to spend millions of euros to prevent English becoming the de facto official language of the European Union, and to shore up the use of French. The Commission has been pushed into the plan by there are no prizes for guessing the French, who are concerned that the language of Molière will become marginalised. As in Canada, language usage is one of the most politically sensitive issues in the EU, with French national pride having been bruised by the increasing use of English. When the Commission undertook a huge recruitment drive among the ten countries due to join the EU in May, it found that 83 per cent of the new staff spoke English and just 24 per cent, French. Now the Commission has agreed that all new employees must learn a third language, usually French, before they can be promoted. The Commission, or at least the long suffering taxpayers of the EU, will be paying for the third language training which will be required of about 5,000 staff by 2008. This will be in addition to an existing French government scheme which pays for civil servants in Eastern Europe to learn French.
New staff regulations approved by national governments came into force in May when the new member states joined, and will increase the amount that the Commission spends on language training to almost 5 million ($8.2 Cdn million) a year. One MEP critic wondered why the French, who so willingly surrendered their national currency in exchange for the euro, should be now so concerned about their language. The same regulations were also criticised by employee representatives; "We don't like the firm link between learning a third language and getting promotion," said Alan Hick, the president of the Union Syndicale, the main staff union. English is the most popular second language in most of the Eastern European countries joining the EU, with Russian second, German third and French fourth. Following enlargement, the number of official languages in the EU will increase from 11 to 20, putting a huge burden on the interpretation and translation service. With 11 languages the number of cross-translations is 110, but with 20 languages it rises to an unmanageable 380. The translation and interpretation services already cost 700 million ($114.1Cdn million) a year, and their availability will be cut back to prevent the cost exceeding 1 billion a year ($1, 630 Cdn billion) by making interpretation available only at the highest-level meetings.
I used to find an endless source of cheap entertainment almost anywhere among the pronouncements of the European Union. Although I may have to wait some time, the latest expansion should provide me with an exponential increase in that number. As I began this article I made a quick survey of EU activities to see what regulations of interest may have emerged since last I wrote on this topic (see FISHY BUSINESS IN THE EUROPEAN UNION, le QL, no 96). After all, in the EU, 29 months is time to produce more regulations than one might believe possible. It did not take very long to find a few juicy items.
Some readers may remember that in mid-June there was a newspaper item to the effect that President Jacques Chirac does not seem to worry about the price of vegetables. An investigating magistrate had announced an inquiry into how Mr. Chirac and his wife managed to spend over 2.1 million ($3.4 million Cdn) on groceries from 1987-95, during his tenure as mayor of Paris, before he became head of state. Newspapers calculated that he and his wife Bernadette masticated fruit and vegetables worth up to 150 ($244) a day even though they had an entirely separate budget for entertainment. Perhaps none of this should surprise us given Mr. Chirac's attitude to reform of the EU's notorious common agricultural policy (CAP). Why should the fact that the CAP adds 600 a year to the food bills of the average European family concern a man who apparently can eat his way through that amount, in fruit and vegetables alone, in just four days? Consider too that the average person in sub-Saharan Africa earns somewhat less than $1 a day while the average European cow thanks to government subsidies earns about $2 a day. In June 2003, the EU farm commissioner proposed paring the CAP subsidies which then consumed some 40 billion euros ($65.2 billion Cdn), or roughly half of the EU budget, but France, with Germany's support as usual, rejected the deal and the proposal was shelved.
I seem to recall that, in a previous article somewhere, I referred to EU regulations regarding the acceptable curvature of bananas. (No, I was not joking then or now!) EU Regulation 2257/94 requires that bananas are at least 13.97cm (5.5in) long and 2.69cm (1.06in) round and do not have "abnormal curvature," as set out in an eight-page directive drawn up in 1994.
Although a major supermarket fought this risible regulation, it was defeated finally when the House of Lords opined that the judgements rendered in its favour by two lower courts were without merit, and the case returned again to a lower court. The House of Lords ordered greengrocers across the entire UK to obey every EU horticultural regulation passed over the past 30 years concerning fresh produce and to conform to the myriad of rules covering size, length, colour and texture. According to an EU Commission official at the time the regulation was introduced, the ban on bent bananas was necessary to prevent them from being mistaken for a "bicycle wheel!" Which is perhaps more a comment on the sub-moronic status of the official concerned.
Cucumbers will have to straighten up their act too. Any cucumber curving more than10mm per 10cm in length cannot be sold as a Class 1 product. Peaches must not be less than 5.6cm in diameter between July and October, and Class 1 Victoria plums must measure at least 3.5cm across. Carrots that are less than1.9cm wide at the thick end are not allowed, except in baby varieties. Not unreasonably perhaps, red apples will be illegal if less than 25 per cent of the surface is red.
The costs of observing this kind of regulation are not inconsiderable, especially for the small greengrocer who will be obliged to verify the adherence to EU regulation of all his products. Few small village stores have the staff to conduct such tests and can only do so by hiring additional staff, thus increasing their prices and lessening their competitiveness. On the subject of the EU regulations, one shipping company employee said: "I would say that it used to take me about two hours in total per week to deal with 1,500 tons of cargo in one vessel and that included writing the reports to Head Office. Eight people, full time, now do that same job. There is a separate 'examination' room where the bananas are measured and 'tested'."
Enough to make one go bananas was the June 2003 announcement made, purely coincidentally of course, a few hours before Mr. Berlusconi was to address EU officials on his plans for his coming six months as EU president. The announcement said that a training school for Italian TV showgirls was to be funded with some $2.2 million Cdn of EU money. This sum was allocated to train 97 girls in how to wear a bikini, dance and sing and apply their own make-up, which works out at $22,500 Cdn per bikini, or more than double the cost of tuition at an Italian acting school. The aspirants were to be paid about $15 Cdn per day in expenses for their year long, 600 hour (180 hours theory and 420 practical) course of 3 hours a day. Anyone who has watched Italian television knows that their shows are swamped with programmes featuring scantily-clad women appearing on football talk shows, quizzes and the like. One spokesman replying to a critic said: "Far from training showgirls, the money will be used to teach aspiring female entertainers." Really!
Already a significant shift has taken place, with the greater use of regulations as opposed to directives. The significance, of course, is that directives must be "transposed" into the national laws of each member state before they take effect, while the regulations take effect the moment they are "enacted" in Brussels. While the "transposition" process at least requires some input from the legislatures and parliaments of the member states, the regulation process completely sidelines both, as EU regulations do not require the assent of either.
With twenty five countries and their hosts of discarded and recycled politicians in search of a place at the trough, the enlarged EU should prove a richly endowed ground.