A tasty victory in the war against over-regulation
The European Union's unelected bureaucrats are notorious for sticking their noses into places they shouldn't go. For example, regulating the length and curvature of bananas. Often, these regulations are the product of pressures from interest groups that want to use the power of autocrats in Brussels to keep competition out of the market.
This week saw the bureaucrats surrender to a popular rebellion against one of their new rules. It was announced that restaurants would no longer be able to serve patrons olive oil in jugs or bowls for bread-dipping, unless the oil came in a factory-sealed container. Two purported problems were offered as excuses: anecdotal claims of sanitation issues (no hard data), and claims that the quality of olive oil could be misrepresented - for example, oil presented as extra-virgin when it was in fact of lesser quality (also, no hard data).
Restaurants and small artisanal olive oil producers were aghast at this overreach. Restaurants would no longer be able to feature high quality distinctive products purchased directly from the producer. Instead, they would have to rely on packaged goods. As Matthew Dalton of the Wall Street Journal pointed out, it was northern consumer countries against Mediterranean olive oil producers Spain, Italy, and Greece.
The UK Telegraph led the charge against the overreach in Britain, and the Conservative Prime Minister fought against it. The Telegraph's Bruno Waterfield explains:
In a humiliating U-turn, Dacian Ciolos, the European commissioner for agriculture, admitted that the proposed ban on traditional olive oil jugs, had provoked popular loathing, or "misunderstanding", from the people that he said wanted to protect for their own good.
"It was a measure intended to help consumers, to protect and inform them but it is clear that it cannot attract consumer support," he said.
"As a consequence, I am withdrawing the proposition. I wanted to come here today to demonstrate that I've been very alive to the current debate in the press."
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, welcomed the U-turn but still faces questions over why the Government did not oppose the ban in Brussels negotiations over the ban last week.
"I'm glad the commission has seen sense and backed down on these arbitrary rules. They would have interfered with businesses, imposed unnecessary costs and taken choice away from consumers. Common sense has prevailed," he said.
This bureaucratic retreat is only a small step, but it is significant. The UK cannot be taken for granted as a continuing member of the EU. The basket case economies of Southern Europe, which just happen to be the olive oil interests that wanted to expand their hold on the market, were put in their place by the richer countries of the north, particularly Germany, which did not support the regulation.
Olive oil and artisanal foods are far more important to Europeans than to Americans, so the symbolic potency of this small bureaucratic retreat may be greater than most Americans would appreciate. Distinctive, delicious olive oil placed on the table with wonderful bread is a way that restaurants define their quality to patrons. It will be far more difficult to raise public resistance to bureaucratic overreach in products like roller bearings or industrial fasteners. Nevertheless a bloody-nosed bureaucrat may be more cautious the next time it comes to grabbing power.
Hat tip: David Paulin