Alberto Alemanno considers a tale of Euroscepticism, political opportunism and a European Commission ‘own goal’
In the aftermath of the last EU summit, one of the many provisions proposed by the European Commission within the framework of its action plan for the olive-oil sector unexpectedly gained global attention.
The provision, which had already won member states’ backing, would have required that restaurants serve olive oil in sealed, clearly labelled and non-reusable containers, instead of relying on refillable containers. The UK’s prime minister, echoed by his Dutch counterpart, publicly attacked the Commission’s adopted proposal by dismissing it as “exactly the sort of area that the European Union needs to get right out of”. While Dacian Cioloş, the European commissioner for agriculture, initially defended the proposal as a way to promote quality olive oil and to protect consumers from fraud, he rapidly withdrew the measure, declaring that the ban was “not formulated in such a way as to assemble widespread support”.
Regardless of what you think about the merits of this proposal, the story it generated calls for closer examination. The tale of the proposal captures many of the misperceptions surrounding the EU’s work, but also reveals how a rule that has the member states’ blessing can be overturned by a minority.
First, it illustrates the lack of understanding of the scope of the regulatory authority granted to the EU. While the Commission proposes around 60-70 legislative acts, it adopts – together with the member states – around 2,000 measures implementing previously agreed legislation every year. The olive-oil proposal fell into the latter category.
Second, it confirms politicians’ tendency to fuel misinterpretations of the EU to suit their immediate political calculus. In particular, it shows how easy is to turn the public against the EU by depicting a rule supposedly aimed at consumer protection as the umpteenth attempt to over-regulate EU citizens’ lives. As such, it illustrates once more the cynicism of leaders who blame the Union for systematically over-reaching the exercises of the very same regulatory powers that they have entrusted to the EU.
Hence, the trivial, yet frequent, claim that the EU, at times of economic difficulties, had better things to do than regulating bottles of olive oil carries limited credibility. Denying multi-tasking ability to a political system is like suggesting that when one of us breaks a leg she should not breathe anymore.
More remarkably, this story teaches us that even once a rule has gained the majority of member states (even though not a qualified majority vote) and has been adopted, it is still possible to get it withdrawn if political leaders of the countries that were left in minority are capable of spinning that story as the latest EU attempt at ‘regulating everything’.
The most pernicious effects of this approach are made possible by widespread ignorance and profound lack of understanding of the EU’s basic functioning. Attacked by the disease of Euroscepticism generated by a few political leaders, public opinion behaves like a human body whose immunity system is deficient. By not having the right antibodies, public opinion does not react to the disease, lets it gain ground and even accelerates its spread.
It is the task of the Commission, as the holder of the monopoly of legislative initiative, to promote the development of the right antibodies against this manipulation of public opinion.
To do so, the Commission should systematically engage in EU-wide stakeholder consultations while assessing the impact of its proposed rules.
Unfortunately, in this case there was no impact assessment of the contested provision. This would have allowed the Commission to not only engage into a more inclusive and evidence-based exercise, by gathering more data on the socio-economic as well as environmental impact of its proposed measures, but also to confer to it some more ‘legitimacy’ vis-à-vis the relevant actors.
As Cioloş conceded, in the absence of an impact assessment, the Commission could not effectively illustrate the merits nor prove the possible effects of the rule. What is more, he could not claim to have consulted with all relevant stakeholders.
This explains why the Commission, which proposed the rule and mobilised a majority of member states in support of this measure, eventually did not stand by its own proposal.
Only a highly formalised, evidence-based and participatory decision-making process could provide the right antibody against politically driven Euroscepticism. At a time of growing disaffection towards the EU, this should be the lesson learned for the Commission from the olive-oil tale.