Britain rues the rules from EU - pass the olive oil, please!

BRUSSELS – The tipping point might have been three years ago, when the European Union wanted to ban open bottles of olive oil — that staple of easygoing culinary fun — from restaurant tables across Europe.

British Euroskeptics, who have railed for years against what they see as the EU’s excessive intrusion into daily life with a long list of petty rules, finally had an example of overreach that promised to irritate everyone who loves to dip crusty bread into oil.

A referendum Thursday will decide whether Britain remains a part of the 28-nation EU. Though the debate has centred more on immigration and the economy, the sense of sovereignty and independence is also a key theme for those in favour of leaving, who often point to attempts to regulate things like olive oil, toasters, and lawn mowers as they make their case that EU regulations can be absurd and stifling.

Those who defend the EU’s rulemaking argue that a union of so many nations representing half a billion people in a single trading zone — the so-called single market — needs extremely detailed regulations to create a level playing field for olive producers from Spain to Greece and for chemical companies from Finland to Italy.

The 2013 olive oil plan, intended to ensure hygiene and curtail fraud, set off a barrage of complaints and never actually took effect.

“It is clear that this olive oil measure intended for consumers does not have widespread support among consumers,” a contrite Dacian Ciolos, then EU farm commissioner, said at the time.

In fact, the backlash against it prompted the EU to begin rolling back some of the rules that have sparked contempt from British citizens.

Steven Blockmans, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies, noted that the plan to ban open olive oil dispensers came after many in Britain were already used to mocking perceived EU diktats that would regulate things like the curvature of cucumbers.

“It may well be,” he said, that it “was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

By that time, the British media had made excessive regulations its favourite cane with which to flog the EU. The European Union now has a special “Euromyths” blog set up to debunk all the wrong claims.

Even in Britain, many no longer take them too seriously, especially after the popular “QI” television program did a “call my bluff” test on such media stories: that the EU would force trawlermen to wear hairnets while fishing (not true), force producers to call sausages “emulsified high-fat offal tubes” (not true) and force circus tightrope walkers to wear hard hats during their act (also not true).

Prime Minister David Cameron, who is campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, and governments from the right and left before him, has called on the EU to stop the “red tape.” The leave campaigners, including former London Mayor Boris Johnson, have gone much further, seizing on it as a key issue in their calls to leave the bloc.

“Why should they tell us how powerful our vacuum cleaners should be?” Johnson told voters in May. “Why should they tell us how powerful our hairdryers should be?” Well, to protect the environment, defenders of regulation say, rules on chemicals are vital while rules on energy consumption of consumer products also help.

“You need indeed quite technical standardization up to the level of cogs and cents and grams, which is of course tedious and very technical in nature,” Blockmans said.

“This is the inconsistency of the Leave camp,” said Professor Paul De Grauwe of the London School of Economics. “They say: One — we want to keep access to the EU market. Two — all rules have to go, no more rules from Brussels. We will do that ourselves.”

“Well, as the British say: You cannot have your cake and eat it,” said De Grauwe.

Yet in fact the EU Commission, which proposes rules, has started to roll back on regulation, pretty much ever since the olive oil debacle. Now, in the words of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU wants to be “big on big things and small on small things.”

Juncker now even has an official first vice-president in charge of “Better Regulation” to boldly cut red tape.

For some in Britain, though, any rule from Brussels will always be one too many, whatever the advantages of a seamless trade zone across 28 nations.