A comment was posed on this blog a few posts ago, when I was writing about free trade, asking why the European Union had made it an offence, punishable by three months in jail, to sell bananas which are too curved or which are not in a box with the word “bananas” on the side.
A reasonable question, so I investigated. The answer, it turns out, is that the European Union hasn’t imposed such penalties on these offences. The position is rather different.
There are penalties for these offences – the comment on the blog is right on that score – but it is wrong to blame this on the European Union. The penalties are a matter for the United Kingdom, not the EU (the Criminal Justice Act 1982 and Section 143 of the Magistrates Court Act 1980, as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1991, since you ask).
The common rules about banana trading were agreed by the EU to ensure that a company one member state can sell bananas to a company in another member state as easily as it can to one within its own member state. That’s what the single market is for.
But the implementation of these common rules, including any penalties, is a matter for each member state. So, it is the United Kingdom that has laid down the three month rule, not the EU. If I thought the three months was so bad as to require secession, then it is London that should leave the UK, not the UK that should leave the EU.
I suppose there is a libertarian case against trading standards and food law in general, in that what is at stake is a relationship between the buyer and the seller which can be left to simple contract law. Caveat emptor, or buyer beware. The importance of maintaining the value of brands will ensure that the consumer is protected. Indeed, that is how many brands started, as guarantees against adulteration or contamination of food.
There are two problems with this as an argument against the European Union, First of all, it doesn’t work. The reason that trading standards and food law were introduced was precisely because the caveat emptor system didn’t work. It was too easy to get away with cheating, so redress and punishment needs to be general, not individual. (Think about all that Worcester sauce that was recalled after being contaminated with an illegal dye.) Among the earliest interventions in the marketplace was the creation of weights and measures, after all. The second argument is that, even if it might work, the people of the EU don’t think so. It is not some alien imposition that requires these rules: they reflect the way in which Europeans (and the British) think right now. It’s not a national versus European debate at all. To pretend that the EU is somehow standing between Britain and libertarianism is rather misleading.
The same consideration arises in the context of the debate in France about the constitution. There is a complaint that the constitution is a neo-liberal imposition on Europe. Again, there are two replies: (1) it is not a neo-liberal document and (2) it was agreed by Europeans, not imposed upon them. It reflects the mixed economy with which the broad consensus of the people of Europe are happy. Over time, the forces of globalisation and technological change are going to bring changes to the European economy. With the constitution, Europeans will be better able to make these changes together.
This blog entry first appeared on www.yes-campaign.net. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or of the Yes campaign.