EU rules meddle in the wrong places

4 September 2008

EU rules meddle in the wrong places

'Brussels' is a rewarding target for ridicule. The EU rules on how bent a banana must be or how straight a cucumber form an image in the public's mind of superfluous interference, of a meddlesome Brussels. Europe too often interferes in the wrong areas and acts regularly as a source of obstructiveness, frustrating national plans.

Erik Meijer is a Member of the European Parliament for the SP

Erik MeijerAn example of this came this month with its 'no' to small, low-cost improvements which would make intercity trains in the Netherlands faster. The Netherlands must instead buy a safety system which is almost ten times as expensive, still doesn't work perfectly and will not come to fruition until 2020.

Commission President Jose Barroso understands that you can better answer criticism with deeds than with words, moving to kill the 'cucumber criticism' with an attempt to have the offending rules scrapped. But the southern member states cherish these rules, or so he complained this summer.

This problem does not of course really emanate from Brussels. Members of the Dutch government were present when each and every one of these rules was confirmed. In the European Parliament, also, the Dutch political parties currently in government, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDA) and centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) have formed since time immemorial, together with their sister parties from other member states, an absolute majority. They are thus being grossly hypocritical when they complain about EU rules.

What these parties, governing both the Netherlands and Europe, continually do is use regulations to force through liberalisation. This not only sounds a contradiction in terms, but is one. The freedom of a community to give work to its own socially-owned or socially-supported workplaces is deemed by Brussels 'illegal state aid'. A recent EU enquiry into alleged distortion of competition by a Dutch zoo on the basis of a complaint brought by a zoo in London was an example of this which was plainly laughable. .

Our reusable bottle for lemonade has had to be replaced under pressure from Brussels because the environmentally-friendly system favoured by the Netherlands was 'distorting' the European market. These are each examples of a persistent mania for rules. Europhiles point readily to the way in which the practices of telecom corporations have been dealt with, or to the removal of border controls. Applause. But the removal of border-hopping rail and bus services is not to be found on their list. Yet if you compare the timetables of regional public transport with those of thirty years ago, you will find that it is rather more difficult to get to Belgium or Germany from the Netherlands.

The Brussels mania for rules is so extensive that independent specialists are often hired to help deal with it. Even governments make use of lobbyists and offices dedicated to getting money back from Brussels to finance Dutch plans. Obviously, a slice of this returned budget disappears into the pockets of the middle-men, to say nothing of all the accountants needed to control this shifting around of money or of the fraud that these European subsidy regulations encourage.

The EU interferes too often in the wrong things and concerns itself too seldom or too slowly with matters where there is evidently a need to do so. Such as in the protection of the public from unequal treatment, in the preservation of housing corporations and essential services, the suppression of dangerous products and unhealthy food, with alternatives to nuclear power and GMOs, or with real openness in government. Non-commercial, collective institutions concerned with housing, health and health care, transport, waste disposal, energy and education should not be forced to chase profits. Pushing through liberalisation by means of regulations is just as daft as talking about whether cucumbers are straight enough.

This article first appeared at the beginning of September in a number of regional dailies in the Netherlands, including Het Dagblad van het Noorden.

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