No olive branch for a European comedy

New regulations on olive oil show what a farce the noble European Union integration project has become.

Sometimes it is worth quoting the European Treaty at length to understand what an utterly absurd machinery the European Union has become. So with apologies to the rules of clear and concise writing, here we go:

“Resolved to mark a new stage in the process of European integration undertaken with the establishment of the European Communities, drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, recalling the historic importance of the ending of the division of the European continent and the need to create firm bases for the construction of the future Europe, confirming their attachment to the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and of the rule of law…”

After this preamble, it was really only a matter of time until the European Union would ban olive oil.

Not all olive oil, to be precise, but only oil served in dipping bowls and jugs. From Lisbon to Bucharest and from Nicosia to Helsinki, restaurants, hotels and pubs will be prohibited from serving olive oil in anything but single-use containers from 1 January 2014.

This is the result of an initiative by the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş, a Romanian conservative (whatever that means). Once the new rules are in force, oils “shall be packed in containers equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after it has first been opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”

From this watershed moment in olive oil history (pardon the pun), there will be olive oil bottles on European restaurant tables. These will have to be labelled with all relevant information in a font whose height is equal to or greater than “a) 2 mm, if the nominal volume of the container is equal to or less than 25 cl; b) 3 mm, if the nominal volume of the container is greater than 25 cl but equal to or less than 100 cl; c) 4 mm, if the nominal volume of the container is greater than 100 cl.”

Note: The less olive oil you consume, the better your eyesight has to be.

To ensure the success of ‘operation bottled olive oil’, “member states must carry out checks to ensure that the markings on the labels are correct and to ensure compliance with this regulation.” Of course, they must also define “appropriate penalties at the national level” that are “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”.

One can almost imagine how in future an olive oil taskforce of the Swedish police will be checking Italian pizzerias in Malmö for non-labelled bottles or, heavens forbid, oil in refillable containers.

All of the above-mentioned nonsense is not from a eurosceptical conspiracy theory, nor is it a satire. This really is the state of the European Union as it presents itself today.

Just as we thought the European Union must be busy with solving its debt crisis, or at least trying to get the economy out of its perma-slump, it has demonstrated what it is really concerned with.

It is easy to show why this EU olive oil regulation is ridiculous: There is simply no good reason why oil must be packaged, but vinegar, salt and pepper need not be. The extra rubbish produced by single-use containers, and the oil wasted by throwing out half-empty containers, will be substantial. The vast majority of restaurant-goers have probably never missed detailed information about the oil consumed at the table in any case.

It is also easy to guess which interests are behind this new EU law. Not the interests of consumers, obviously, but the interests of olive farmers, and olive oil producers. No wonder the new regulations were promoted by Mediterranean countries. They obviously felt the need to supplement the EU’s agricultural subsidies available to the olive industry with some sort of additional income support. Wasting vast quantities of unused oil might just do the trick.

Finally, Europe’s olive oil industry has been repeatedly shaken by mislabelling scandals in which poorer quality oils were still sold as “extra-virgin”. Given this history, how much trust should consumers really have in labelled bottles at the table? Probably not much more than in the open jugs of oil without any label.

What is really infuriating about this EU olive oil madness is the state of the European Union it reveals.

Founded with the best of intentions and derived from the highest moral and political principles, the European Union has gradually developed into a farce. If it was really so committed to “fundamental freedoms and of the rule of law” as it claims in the preamble to its Treaty, it would respect one of the most fundamental freedoms of its citizens: the freedom of contract.

Freedom of contract is one of those freedoms that politicians and lawyers love paying lip-service to. But that seldom stops them from interfering with it when it matters.

In this case, why should restaurant-owners and restaurant-goers not be allowed to come together with open oil on the table? If diners and restaurateurs so wish, who should have the right to stop them? And with what justification?

The other problem highlighted by the olive oil circus is the European Union’s misguided focus. Instead of decisively dealing with the fundamental issues facing the continent, it loses itself in the minutiae of regulation.

Europe has massive problems, not just the euro crisis. Its welfare systems are overstretched, its pension schemes underfunded, its population is ageing and its role in the world diminishing.

On all of these big questions, Europe remains stuck for answers. But as if to compensate for its general helplessness, it is all the more active on the little issues such as olive oil.

Whether there have to be single-use oil canisters on European restaurant tables or not may not be the biggest question for the world economy today.

But to watch the European Union dealing with it in such an overly-bureaucratic way, one may well be concerned for the future of the European economy – not just in olive-growing countries.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative.