If the initiative had prospered, on January 1, 2014 every single restaurant from Athens to Helsinki would have had to eliminate the refillable oil dispensers that customers use to dress their salads or add flavor to their bread while they wait for the main course. Instead, establishments would have had to provide single-dose packages or sealed bottles to prove that there really is olive oil inside and that nobody has refilled the cruets with a lower-quality product.
A hailstorm of criticism - and, above all, mockery - rained down on the initiative, especially from northern European countries. The European Commission, which was the driving force behind a measure aimed at favoring the olive oil industry, decided to pull it rather than face full on opposition from the British or Dutch governments.
The Euroskeptic media had a field day with this story, which is reminiscent of other colorful controversies - like the time when the Commission insisted on regulating the exact curvature of cucumbers, or when it was established that the color of leeks must lie somewhere "between white and greenish white."
It's the kind of debate that always draws the extremists from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. On one side of the trenches are those who describe Brussels as a city populated by Eurocrats living off their generous benefits and whose sole function is to micromanage people's lives following a simple guideline: the rules must be completely useless. On the other side are those who wave the blue flag with the 12 stars and accuse anyone who dares criticize the EU Commission, Council or Parliament of being "a Europhobe." True, this is an old debate. But it takes on added urgency if we consider that there is less than a year to go before European elections, and that the present climate is alarmingly favorable to Euroskeptics, who thrive on a crisis that has left 27 million people out of a job.
If we want a single market for fridges, it would help if plugs were all the same"
And so the apparently insignificant issue of whether restaurants should dispense with oil dispensers has become a metaphor for the problems hounding European construction.
The question is simple: does Brussels suffer from excessive regulatory zeal? The answer is not quite as simple. Even the most pro-EU observers will admit that things have occasionally gone too far. The differences lie in the nuances. "I will not swallow the easy populism that describes the EU as a bureaucratic monster that only occupies itself with yogurt labels. That is simply not true," says Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a eurodeputy and former Socialist justice minister in Spain.
López Aguilar will admit that there are "remnants of a period when the regulatory focus was on the internal market," but he adds that the EU that emerged from the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 has broad powers over such relevant fields as fundamental rights and the social agenda. "It's all too easy to come up with simplistic rhetoric concerning this or that particular initiative, but that is a mistake."
Yet these are precisely the kinds of details that Hans Magnus Enzensberger enumerates in his book Brussels, the Gentle Monster, published last year. In the chapter that covers regulations on the environmental design of household light bulbs, the German writer wonders whether the 14 pages that the European Commission needs to tell citizens how to light their homes reflect "scrupulousness, stupidity, arbitrariness, the desire to create obstacles, or perhaps the sadistic voluptuousness that comes from issuing orders and prohibitions [...] Nobody knows for sure, not even the people in charge of it."
- A 1988 regulation established that cucumbers could only be commercialized as being of superior category if the curvature did not exceed 10 millimeters over a length of 10 centimeters. On a website devoted to debunking what it calls pervasive "Euro-myths," the European Commission says that these norms are requested by the industry to facilitate imports and that they do not, in fact, prohibit anything.
- A 2001 directive established that a Category I leek (the top quality) must have "a white and greenish-white color" covering at least "a third of its total length or half of its wrapped part." The directive added that in the case of early leeks, this color may be confined to "just a quarter of the total length or a third of its wrapped part."
Critics not only target this abundance of mostly useless norms, but also the way in which decisions are made - or in other words, the lack of institutional transparency. Vincenzo Scarpetta, a political analyst at the Euroskeptic think-tank Open Europe, says that the oil container episode underscores just how lost the EU is: its priorities are wrong, and it is later forced to backtrack due to pressure from a few member states.
"The decision was made by a technical committee, of whose existence the great majority of people are completely unaware. Nobody knows to what degree this sort of initiative is adopted for the common good or because of pressure from sectors that stand to benefit," says Scarpetta.
Lorna Schrefler, of the Center for European Policy Studies, grants the need for greater transparency in the decision-making process, but she notes that the Lisbon Treaty already gave the Parliament greater powers, and she questions the accusation that Brussels legislates solely to favor private interests. "I don't think there are any more lobbies here than there are in Washington or any other power center," says this analyst.
"We can all be ironic about the excess of regulation, but if we want to sell refrigerators in a single market, it would be convenient if power points were the same everywhere," adds an EU public worker. It is true that there are still different plugs depending on the country.
And here is where ideology begins to taint the debate. Many of those who attack Brussels because of its regulatory zeal have no problem with national states intervening in the daily lives of their citizens. As a high-ranking EU official who would rather remain anonymous puts it: "Sometimes we err on the excessive side. But the question is not whether Brussels regulates too much; rather, it is whether there are too many rules at all levels of administration. It is not intellectually legitimate to separate the two issues." It's the double standard that draws complaints from the team led by Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, who proposed the ban on oil dispensers in the first place.
"There was a communication problem and we must accept our share of responsibility. But the greatest criticism came from countries who at one time most vociferously demanded a European response to the horsemeat scandal," said the commissioner's spokesman, in a veiled reference to Britain.
The free circulation of people and goods has been achieved; we need to move on"
It was precisely British Prime Minister David Cameron who leapt on the oil dispenser controversy as "the sort of thing that Europe shouldn't even be discussing." And it was the Conservative leader's minister for Europe, David Lidington, who recently pointed to a series of European norms - the footwear and jewelry that hairdressers should wear; store opening hours; the share of women sitting on company boards - as an explanation for the loss of trust in the EU.
"Some say that this loss is a temporary thing, tied to the crisis. But my experience tells me that economic recovery will not resolve the democratic deficit. Politicians and experts talk about principles, but citizens view it in more practical terms," the minister said.
Ciolos himself admitted last week in the European Parliament that even though the Commission was fighting "like a lion" to defend farmers, he pulled the initiative because it ran the risk of being viewed as a battle against consumers.
This is precisely the danger that looms over a Europe that remains unable to pull itself out of recession, and where several southern members are facing a deep depression. It would be worthwhile asking oneself why the Commission sticks its nose into these matters, yet did not speak out on the irregularities of Spanish mortgage legislation that resulted in tens of thousands of evictions until the Luxembourg ECJ court said it was incompatible with European consumer protection directives.
"We have reached a level of integration where we need to reconsider the classical state," says one source in the European Council. "We function as though we were organizing the free circulation of people and goods. That's already been achieved. Sometimes I see in the Commission an attempt to keep on filling the void in order to justify its own existence."
So refillable oil dispensers will continue to sit on the tables of restaurants across Europe after all. Brussels has backpedaled on this issue, but it does not mean that the spark of discontent cannot light up again at any moment. The Euroskeptics will latch on to any exotic rule produced between now and the European elections of May 2014 to indulge in some extra Europe-bashing. Stay tuned for more.
ANTONIO JIMÉNEZ BARCA
Luis runs a typical restaurant in downtown Lisbon: he serves sardines in the summer, soups in the winter and cod dishes all year round. His tables always feature small sealed bottles of olive oil. In January 2006, Portuguese law banned the traditional refillable oil cruets from restaurants. In general terms, this legislation is observed. Luis says it is more expensive this way, because each 250-centiliter bottle costs him a euro. A one-liter bottle is two euros, and before that, when he used to buy the olive oil wholesale from his village, it was even cheaper. "But it's the law," he shrugs.
Now that the European Commission has backpedaled on its intention to extend this regulation to the entire EU, Portuguese restaurant owners are asking that it be repealed in Portugal as well. So far, they have been unsuccessful. The Association of Restaurants and Similar Businesses of Portugal considers that this legislation "tends to protect the oil packaging industry and leads to higher prices." It says the measure has not helped the producers, while it has benefited the intermediaries. And the additional expense can be felt at times of crisis such as this one (the 23-percent rate of VAT has kept many older customers at home).
Producers defend the law. In recent statements to the daily Diario de Notícias, a spokesperson for the Federation of Oil Cooperatives of Portugal said that ever since the legislation went into effect, "the quality of the product that is served at Portuguese restaurants has gone up significantly and if prices have gone up significantly too, that means that what used to be served was not oil."
Several oil associations have criticized the fact that other European countries will not be getting the same legislation, since they feel this hurts the interests of oil-producing countries and consumers alike. They claim that without this measure, customers cannot be sure about what they are eating. European Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos recently held Portugal up as an example that the experiment has been a success.
For their part, consumer organizations are raising the alarm about non-compliance with the norm at many establishments, and about the possibility of fraud. "I don't know any restaurant where bottles are in fact inviolable," said Ângela Frota, chief of the Portuguese Consumer Association, in recent statements to the news agency Lusa. Frota noted that any one of the little bottles served at Lisbon's eateries could easily be tampered with by breaking the seal, refilling them with wholesale oil and putting the seal back on. Luis, the restaurant owner, says that neither he nor the majority of his colleagues have ever dreamt of tampering with a seal.