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Big Brother Is Sweating the Small Stuff

How does the EU’s zeal to regulate give many Europeans a serious case of indigestion?

September 20, 2000

How does the EU's zeal to regulate give many Europeans a serious case of indigestion?

Want to give “Big Government” a bad name? Just go down to one of America’s thriving farmers markets. Imagine, as you buy a basket of organic tomatoes, that the police suddenly rush through the crowd of shoppers to arrest the stallholder. What offence has the incredulous farmer committed? Daring to sell goods by pounds and ounces, rather than by kilos and grams.

This is precisely what happened in Britain this month. Steven Thoburn, who sells his fruit and vegetables in Sunderland’s Southwick market, has had his three old-fashioned weighing machines confiscated after local officials informed him that he would be prosecuted for selling his goods in the way British markets have done for centuries.

The relevant English law, the Weights and Measures Act of 1985, says traders may sell using either system.

But under the European Union’s single market rules, the new regulations say the pounds and ounces have to give way to the metric system.

Inevitably, anti-Europe groups like the UK Independence Party have seen a political bandwagon and jumped aboard.

But the law, as the old saying goes, is sometimes an ass. Usually, we fix it. But the European Union is getting a reputation all across the continent as a repeat offender. Germans grumble at the way the EU bureaucrats of Brussels tried to get them to soften brewer’s 500-year old purity law, which says good German beer can be made only from hops, yeast, malt and water.

Similarly, Greeks complain at the EU rules on making their traditional feta cheese. And Spaniards protest that Brussels does not always know best how to smoke hams.

In the Perigord district of France, where I spend as much of the year as I can, most of us good Europeans are becoming hardened criminals. We break the law when we go with our neighbors to slaughter a pig, to make the saussices and rillettes and blood sausage that are a glory of our local cuisine.

We break the law again when we make our own vin de noix of green walnuts and local wine and home-brewed eau de vie. We break it again when we get our foie gras from a friendly farmer who slaughters his ducks in the farmyard, rather than a white-tiled abbatoir.

In our region, we have all grown so accustomed to defying silly laws that one of the unwritten duties of our local municipal police is to tip off the local farmers when inspectors are due to visit the area. They routinely warn the makers of goat’s cheese that they might want to avoid market day this week.

Harmless enough, you might say. Except that routine law-breaking sets a bad precedent. And as angry protesters blockade main roads and refineries and gas stations as Europeans protest soaring fuel prices, we are living with the consequences.

One of the reasons why public support for “Europe” has been declining (according to the EU’s own Eurobarometer polls) in country after country is that the centralizers of Brussels have got into the irritating habit of ignoring public sentiment in the name of the grand European cause. And this has gone far beyond the tiresome meddling with out traditional foodstuffs.

The arrogant and fatuous attempt by fellow EU governments to boycott Austria because its election results brought an unsavory right-wing party into a coalition government has been an embarrassment from which they are now trying to escape.

It is very odd. In Britain, Germany, France and Italy, governments have been cutting taxes, privatizing state-owned industries, and more or less openly accepting that Bill Clinton was right to suggest that “the era of Big Government is over.” The sooner they apply that lesson to the regulators of Brussels as well, the better.

September 20, 2000

Martin Walker, the former Washington bureau chief of The Guardian newspaper, is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.