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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Bananas, euromyths and ridiculous regulations

BananasAnd so yet more silly EU regulations bite the dust, as a bunch of rules on the physical appearance of fruit and vegetables are set to go the way of the Dodo. The most famous of these, of course, being the infamous “straight banana” euromyth that has been doing the rounds of the UK tabloids for years – “Brussels bureaucrats ban bananas!” and suchlike.

With today’s announcement of the scrapping of lots of similar regulations, of course, some anti-EU types are feeling entirely justified in claiming that anyone who said the straight bananas story was a myth was a liar.

But the bananas one WAS a myth (at least, the original one about straight bananas being banned). Regulation (EC) 2257/94 – a great read, by the way – stated that they must be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers”, but failed to specify what this meant, and said nothing about straightness. It also didn’t actually ban anything. There was a fun bit about “the grade, i.e. the measurement, in millimetres, of the thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicularly to the longitudinal axis” though…

Bendy cucumbers, however? They were a bit less keen on those – under regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 they are only allowed a bend of 10mm for every 10cm of length. So had the tabloids gone mental with BRUSSELS BANS CURVY CUCUMBERS! headlines, it would have been rather harder for EU apologists to make a comeback.

Yes, the level of detail in these regulations is silly and unnecessary – of that there can be no doubt. That’s precisely why they’re scrapping them.

Yet still we get the outrage over regulations that will soon no longer exist. How dare the EU see the error of its ways and listen to reason!

It’s just like it was a couple of years ago when another bit of deregulation was announced – despite the EU doing what the anti-EU types want, and scrapping some of its interfering rules, it gets attacked all over again. The EU just can’t win with some people…

Nonetheless – and though I entirely support scrapping silly regulations (who doesn’t?) – standardisation of product qualities is arguably as necessary to a well-functioning market as standardised weights and measures. Otherwise how can consumers in country X be sure that they are getting the same quality and value as those in country Y?

With most EU agricultural produce consumed within the EU itself, it also makes sense to try to harmonise standards EU-wide so that farmers don’t have to mess about trying to ensure that their produce meets 27 different quality standards.

Because, lest we forget, all EU member states had their own food regulations before the “Eurocrats” got involved. The EU’s ones may be too detailed and rather silly, but it’s surely better than trying to cope with umpteen different standards for umpteen different countries?

Or has the UK suddenly become self-sufficient in bananas and oranges, rendering external trade unnecessary?

16 Comments

  1. Firstly we could have national regulations about , well, national things, which covers nearly everything for everybody here. Then we could agree on international standards for international trade with other countries, not just 27 in the EU. Secondly we dont need any internatioal body like the EU to tell us what we can or cannot IMPORT from EU countries or freer countries outside it.
    Thirdly these are silly regulations and there are more important subjects about the EU. Some peoples whole way of life is affected by our membership of this project, and would willingly give this issue prominence than that of vegetables.
    Fourthly some of us EUrosceptics are asking and looking to see where the EU is a Good Thing, or at least has some virtues. Sadly nothing ever comes forth to show this project in a good light, so it reinforces the notion that the EU is not beneficial to Britain.

    So the tinkering around the edges and complaints of carping by your side of EUrosceptics is the result of really no serious discussion by EUrophiles about the major issues of the EU.
    Perhaps a referendum (a) would concentrate minds.

  2. When listening to Radio Scotland today, the reporter said that the scrapping of EU regulations regarding straight fruit and veg does not include the banana.

    He said the banana regulations were part of a different set of regulations designed to regulate the banana imports (from the Carribean?) to the EU.

    He defended the implementation of the former rules as something that the supermarkets wanted, but now they might be free to give us cheaper (deformed) fruit and veg. In about 6 months time.

  3. I heard an EU spokesperson on Radio 4 saying that bananas were a special case and subject to other regulations. He did mention that we can all buy knobbly carrots, if only we can get the supermarkets to stock them.

  4. Everyone is really rather missing the point here.

    Yes, of course, an industry needs to agree common standards. As, indeed, most industries do. A 1/8 th screw has a common definition in the exciting world of 1/8th screw manufacturing and distribution. My little world of weird and wonderful metals has an organisation (the Minor Metals Trader’s Association) which provides standard boilerplate contracts and standards for the classification of purity of various metals.

    All of that is just wonderful. But it isn’t a function of government to pass laws which insist that such standards must be met by everyone. Rather, these are voluntary things. If you want to sell bananas to a supermarket, sure, you’ve got to accept that supermarket’s definitions of how to classify bananas. But perhaps you’d rather sell to street traders, those traders and their customers being less fussy about curvature?

    The law shouldn’t stand in your way.

    And that’s why the EU laws are so ridiculous.Not because standards aren’t necessary, but because they’re not su[pposed to be the law, they are supposed to be voluntary agreements.

    And they certainly shouldn’t be part of the criminal law. Yes, until July when these changes take effect the sale of a banana of abnormal curvature will be a criminal offence, one that will leave you open to a 6 month prison sentence and or a £5,000 fine.

    And that, of course, is why this whole story is so revealing of the way that the EU works. They simply have no concept of the way in which a successful civil society operates. It does not need the law to be polished and perfected by bureaucrats. Hayek really was right, there is a thing called spontaneous order and the vast majority of the rules and regulations we are subject to should simply never have existed.

  5. Tim – On fruit and veg I sort of agree, on nuts and bolts I’m sure you’re right. But on CO2 emissions in cars, which is what I know best it’s essential to have a body like the EU passing regulations. Otherwise, Britain could do its bit, but it would be worth nothing because over in Germany carmakers were selling bigger and bigger cars.

    In other words on issues that go beyond national boundaries we need Europe-wide solutions.

  6. “But on CO2 emissions in cars, which is what I know best it’s essential to have a body like the EU passing regulations.”

    Erm, no. Regulations on the average fleet emissions are not a good idea, whether they’re imposed by the EU, UN or UK.

    We already know how to deal with CO2 emissions. Either carbon taxes or cap and trade (I’ll not bother with the technical differences here). And that’s all we do. We don’t start banning flights, or large engines, or insist on everyone having small cars. We simply incorporate the externalities of people’s actions into the price system and then let them get on with it.

    It’s also worth noting that current fuel duty in the UK more than covers the costs of CO2 emissions and that Air Passenger Duty covers aviation ones. So we don’t even need the EU there either.

  7. I think you`re missing a point Tim.Lets take carbon taxes-Britain will want to be a leader. Or rather, our mandarins and politicians will want to be a leader in all this. So they will tax us while other countries will not. Same with cap and trade. The senior civil servants will quite happily sign us to the worse deal out so that again, they can be leading against climate change or whatever has got the EU`s goat. Sod the rest of us, our lives dont count.Their prestige amongst their counterparts in international gatherings is what counts.
    It`s not whether the EU is a Good Thing or Bad Thing for the other 26 countries, it`s the fact that we are unsuited to be in it.

  8. This has to be good news.

    I don’t understand your point about ‘consumers being sure they are getting the same quality’. It’s not at all like weights & measures. If someone goes to the shops and wants some bananas, they can pick out the straightest ones or the curviest ones according to their personal preference. The regulations are just limiting their choice, surely.

    You have a slightly better point if you are referring to the interaction between supplier and retailer. However, I still don’t accept that regulation is necessary. If a retailer receives a consignment of bananas and they turn out to be too curvy, why not complain or go elsewhere? Why should this be mandated by law?

    Incidentally, one of my first ever posts at Question That dealt with this very topic. The interpretation of the EU regulation I was covering was the opposite of what you suggest, specifically that it was the curved bananas that were banned, which you have to agree would have been rather daft. It was, as you describe, partly true but exaggerated.

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  10. Tim (and QT and others who’ve followed up on Tim) – you say “it isn’t a function of government to pass laws which insist that such standards must be met by everyone”, and I agree. But then the EU’s only partially a form of government. At its heart still lies a trading body, and it was set up (in part) to make trade easier between its member states.

    Could the market provide something similar? Quite possibly – but when these laws were introduced it hadn’t yet managed to, and umpteen competing national regulations and voluntary agreements were in place for each of the various different products. One could argue that having now been pointed in the right direction, the market’s now being left to get on with it – the EU’s just speeded up the process of market harmonisation. (But there’s no way I’m going to try and get into a debate about economics with you – you’d wipe the flaw with me…)

    As for whether breaching these rules should be a criminal offence? No, it probably shouldn’t. But again, if you take their existence as a short-term thing designed to harmonise the common market, then some kind of stick was arguably necessary to go with the carrot of easier cross-border trade in order to speed the whole process up.

    Yes, of course it was silly that the regulations appeared to apply to everyone, no matter whether you were trading in fruit and veg across borders or not. But at the same time how many prosecutions were brought against people for selling fruit and veg that failed to abide by the regulations based on something as minor as shape alone? Though the letter of the law may not have suggested this (which, again, makes them badly-written laws, something I’ve never denied), I very much doubt that minor breaches of minor aspects were ever intended to be prosecuted. (One might also ask how much supermarket fruit and veg is still in its country of origin?)

    Likewise, their existence and the harmonisation in production that they have brought has brought in the possibility of more traders being able to sell across borders with ease. Now that the market is more harmonised and the regulations are being withdrawn, more fruit and veg companies should be in a position to trade EU-wide, and that should help bring prices down even further than just allowing wonky produce to go on sale.

    In short: Should they have ever been any more than guidelines? No. But I reckon that the fact that they were for a short period should end up helping the market in the longer term. Take this as a precedent, and fingers crossed for more EU laws being repealed in the years to come as they become unnecessary.

    QT – specifically on the consumer aspect (though this is a bit of a sidetrack). By “consumers being sure they are getting the same quality” I mean that if a banana costs 23 euros EU-wide, that means the consumer doesn’t feel he’s getting ripped off. Unless a consumer from member state x goes to member state y and buys a banana, only to find that bananas in country y are much bigger and tastier than he can get at home. (Not that I am advocating centralised price-fixing here, by any means…) That’s where the weights and measures comparison comes in – it’s as if a pound of potatoes costs the same in country x and country y, only in country x a pound is 450g, and in y a pound is 500g. The consumer in country x is getting a worse deal.

  11. “Unless a consumer from member state x goes to member state y and buys a banana, only to find that bananas in country y are much bigger and tastier than he can get at home.”

    Does anyone seriously think this is enough of an issue for all this regulation to be worthwhile? Because I certainly don’t. I think people can handle the idea that things might differ in cost and in quality from one country to the next, somehow.

  12. QT – no, of course not. That’s why I said it was a sidetrack. It’s an additional bonus, not justification in itself.

    BUT, while people certainly can handle the idea that things may differ in cost and quality country to country, if you’re looking to build a genuinely common market with a system of unfettered trade within a group of however many member states, you need to have easily-comparable standards throughout that market to prevent businesses in member state x losing out because everyone can buy things cheaper in member state y.

    Not much of an issue for an island nation, to be sure. But if you lived in, say, Belgium, 20 minutes drive from France in one direction, Luxembourg in the other and the Netherlands in yet another, such things become major issues. (My aunt and uncle, when living in Belgium, always used to do their weekly shop in Luxembourg, for example – much cheaper there.) I don’t have the figures to hand to tell you what percentage of the EU’s population live within a modest drive of a land border, but it’s not inconsiderable.

    Yes, naturally the market itself should, over time, sort this out if its a problem that genuinely needs a solution. But the key point is that the market CAN’T sort this sort of thing out when every country has its own rules and regulations, distorting market forces and price inequalities yet further. Hence short-term EU legislation to replace the umpteen national regulations that were in place before with one EU-wide set of rules, harmonising the market quickly before repealing them all and letting it get on with things.

  13. “Hence short-term EU legislation to replace the umpteen national regulations that were in place before with one EU-wide set of rules, harmonising the market quickly before repealing them all and letting it get on with things.”

    Why do you assume that markets need to be “harmonised”?

    Markets are about competition and choice for the consumer. As a result of competetive offerings, the consumer gets to choose the one that boosts their utility the most.

    There seems to be an assumption that this is only about cost. But that simply isn’t true. Competition comes also in quality, in the form of the offering, not just the cost.

    So, if regulation is brought in to insist that all offerings are the same (say, size of vegetables, allowable ingredients of jam) then competition and choice are reduced. Such harmonisation is thus the antithesis of what we both want and expect from a market.

    That the participants in the market might want standards so that they know what they’re buying is one thing, but forced harmonisation, the banning of things which are outside such standards, is quite another.

    It’s a denial of consumer choice, the very thing that markets are all about.

  14. “Easily comparable standards throughout the market to prevent businesses in member state x losingout because everyone can buy things cheaper in member state y ”

    Tax has the most fundamntal difference here. Business in member state x cannot compete if it is taxed more to give to a commision who gives it to member state y.
    Also if member state x has halfwits who cant see unfair trading conditions in a trade or industry it`s time for member state x to leave this EU project and get serious about economics.

  15. “Why do you assume that markets need to be “harmonised”?”

    When a product is as free to be sold in Romania just as much in the United Kingdom, they ought to be under the same standards. It’s not fair, due to our completely open borders with one and another, if the UK has requirements on sugar that Romanians bypass and then sell in the UK. Harmonization is not about reducing competition, it’s about setting clear classification standards or (in some cases) requiring a basic minimum.

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