TCS Daily


Rough Trade

By Val MacQueen - March 11, 2004 12:00 AM

We live in interesting times.

Since the clock struck midnight on December 31 last year, the nameless apparatchiks haunting the corridors of power and five-star restaurants of Brussels have set a dizzying pace in further eroding the right of citizens of EU countries to think for themselves.

Last year, one of the more arcane instances of failure to understand free enterprise was the binding directive that all free-range eggs -- which are normally the produce of small hatcheries operating on slender margins -- must henceforth be stamped with the layer's personal name and address. As in "Tawny, a spitfire-tempered bantam with weakness for posturing, strutting-type alpha males", and the farmer's address and phone number, in case anyone wants to arrange a date.

Never mind that free-range hatcheries have always accepted responsibility for their eggs and have been printing their names and addresses on their egg cartons for years. The bureaucrats in Brussels deemed this not responsible enough for the protection of the increasingly helpless and spineless European citizenry.

That directive involved small farmers in expenditure for special stamps that will work on the curved surface of an egg. And, as stamping a fragile eggshell is not like stamping a cardboard carton, it has to be done by hand.

When questioned by a reporter about how the farmers were going to afford to pay for extra labor for stamping each egg, a bureaucrat replied that it would give their wives something to do.

At the beginning of 2004, the apparatchiks, who throw out flurries of directives with the blinding energy of snow-blowers after a heavy fall, lit upon two whole new areas for interference that should keep them in first-class travel for years.

First to engage their attention is the fact that the peoples of Europe have, for thousands of millennia, been using herbal remedies for common ailments. And for the last 50 years or so, they have been compounding their disloyalty to the pharmaceutical industry by taking vitamin pills and mineral supplements as well. After several thousand years of safe usage, our ancestors having thoughtfully noted the ones whose use results in death, natural remedies are to be verboten. Across the board. And no more iron or calcium supplements either.

Why? They haven't undergone years of expensive testing in labs. They haven't been approved by the EU. So they are to be outlawed. Just like that. From now on, people who place their faith in homeopathic remedies and health-food stores are out of luck. The EU is a debate-free zone.

Next up to bat is the de facto privatization of the fight against terrorism. As soon as they have finished tweaking it about a bit, and discussed it over a few long lunches with Heide, Pedro, Marie-France and Nigel, the EU is going to require all airlines taking off from within the European Union to check passengers' details for accuracy and be responsible for sending a report to the country of destination.

In normal areas of the world, this is done by trained immigration officers. But in the fantasy world of the EU, it is going to be done by airline ticketing clerks in between checking luggage, assigning seats and assuring the man in 12F that they haven't forgotten his vegetarian meal.

Needless to say, the airlines have not been slow to point to the grotesque delays this will force on their customers at check-in.

The objections are irrelevant, however, as the EU juggernaut is in motion. The Eurocrats claim that it will only cause a 30-second delay per passenger. Meaning, with 200 passengers on board this would result in one-and-a-half hour's extra check-in time, extending the regular two hours to three and a half hours.

However, the airlines do not accept those sunny Brussels figures. They estimate that clerks checking passenger's details and forwarding them to the destination country will take a minimum of one minute per passenger, with problematic cases much longer, and cause another two to four hours on top of normal check-in times.

Apart from the unnecessary and stressful delays the implementation of this directive will involve, many Europeans -- or the ones who can still think for themselves, at any rate -- would rather see international security being handled by security operatives with guns than by airline ticketing agents with a stapler and an attitude.

In a further piece of EU disconnection with the real world, no such procedures are to be applied to train journeys. So those who wish to avoid detection, or simply avoid delay, can continue to hop on a train in Paris and run down to Barcelona or across to Munich without so much as showing a passport.

And now, apart from keeping us safe from eggs laid by anonymous poultry, natural folk remedies that have been in use since human beings stood upright and putting Kevin at check-in in charge of national security, the apparatchiks are contemplating doing us another favor: narrowing our commercial choices.

Pascal Lamy is the European Trade Commissioner. We do not know precisely how these commissioners come by their jobs, although every government in the EU has one or two cream puff spots to award to failed politicians it wishes would just go somewhere else. Brussels is gray and anonymous enough to count as "somewhere else." Britain got to appoint Welsh gasbag Neil Kinnock, serial Labour party election loser, to be one of its two Commissioners. What he does isn't clear, but he has expensive quarters in Brussels, earns around $380,000 a year untaxed, plus lavish housing, and first-class travel. Briton Chris Patten, last seen presiding over the shameful handing over of 5 million freeborn Hong Kong citizens to China, seems to be in charge mainly of disbursing generous EU funds to Arafat and the PLO, is European Commissioner for External Affairs and is on the same generous package.

What is so great about the first-class travel privilege is, to claim reimbursement, not only do you not have to produce receipts, but you don't even have to leave Brussels! You can just fill in your "expense report" at home over a chilled bottle of Sancerre, assured the "reimbursement" will have been credited on your next bank statement.

The system of accounting in the EU is so corrupt that auditors have refused to sign off on the books for the last four years. This never seems to shock anyone. And indeed, why should it? The European Central Bank has just appointed Jean Claude Trichet (whose name, in French, means cheat) as Chairman. It was a narrow squeak, as he was possibly going to be unavoidably detained owing to charges of embezzling from Credit Lyonnais, but fortunately a French court found him not guilty.

Lamy, even though he is France's nomination for an ongoing anonymity slot, takes himself and his responsibilities to world trade very seriously. To attend the last WTO talks, he forced himself to leave the damp and chilly Brussels fall to withstand the brutal heat of Cancun and endure endless poolside chit chat. Despite having no constituency because he's not elected, Lamy likes to keep in touch, via his newsletter, whose logo is a cartoon of himself wearing a toga and Roman sandals. We know, via his chatty newsletter, that it would not be an exaggeration to say he was devastated when the talks collapsed. In fact, he confided, he spent so much time trying to hold the whole show together that not only did he lose sleep, but he sacrificed his jogging for several days in a row. To no avail! Those Third World countries, there to try to get a fair deal for their own farmers, against the might of the biggest scam on the face of the earth -- the egregious EU Common Agricultural Policy -- persisted in regarding the conference as a genuine negotiating platform and making all manner of unrealistic demands for access to the EU markets for their producers.

So the whole process collapsed and everyone went home empty-handed, which is how the Third Worlders would have been going home anyway.

"As you all know," Lamy mused in his newsletter in his inimitable style, "the EU, after Cancun, spent some time soul-searching and asking some really fundamental questions ..."

But life goes on, and Lamy is currently studying a discussion paper for possible introduction at a conference this summer. It proposes some radical, not to say bizarre, changes to global trade rules. The idea is that governments be allowed to ban imports from countries that do not share their "national values and standards."

This would mean, just as an example, that France, noting that politically South Africa and Chile do not share its "national values and standards", could, in a fit of moral outrage, ban the importation of wines from those countries.

The paper says legalizing curbs on imports that do not meet individual societies' "collective preferences" would promote global economic integration by reducing international tensions. How imposing highly notional moral judgments to international commerce is going to advance the cause of free trade and reduce international tensions isn't explained, but then, as we know, Lamy walks a lonely path in a world of his own. Doubtless he'll have figured something out by summer.

According to London's Financial Times, "World Trade Organization rules prohibit import bans except in specified circumstances, such as when products are found to be unsafe. However, the paper says the WTO rules give too much weight to science and too little to local social and political sensitivities.

"The paper does not detail what kinds of imports the European Union might want to restrict. However, it says divergent national regulations and public attitudes worldwide threaten to create growing trade frictions over environmental policy and in sectors such as agriculture, services, software and pharmaceuticals."

Lamy's office is currently at pains to deflect inquiries by noting that this is currently just a paper for discussion. His spokeswoman in Brussels, Arancha Gonzalez, replied to my email in which I expressed puzzlement: "There is a reflection on-going with the Trade services of the European Commission together with a group of EU intellectuals around the issue of 'collective preferences' and, in particular, how to avoid that the defense of interests or values in the trade legislation of a given country constitutes an undue barrier to trade. This is an intellectual exercise which has not translated into any proposal or recommendation."

Yet.

Val MacQueen recently wrote for TCS on the ban of Muslim headscarves from the schoolroom.


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