EU Referendum

EU Referendum: BBC – the epitome of ignorance


Following a BBC radio programme on the issue, the BBC magazine website carries a long article about the great cabbage myth, which has it that the EU regulation on the sale of cabbage runs to 26,911 words.

I think many of us already knew this was a myth going back to the 1940s, initially referring to US federal regulations on the sale of duck eggs. Indeed, we wrote about it on this blog in 2004, after it had been aired on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in a different guise.

That, though, is not the main issue here. What we are concerned with is the BBC using this story as a "hook", a hidden propaganda opportunity to show us that the beneficent EU is capable of responding to public concerns.

In 2006, it says, there was Regulation (EC) No 634/2006 which addressed the size of cabbages, and how they should be labelled, coming in – it claims - at just under 2,000 words. But then, in 2009, these regulations, along with some other rules on the sale of fruit and vegetables, were repealed.

That, for the BBC, is a potted history of the cabbage regulation. "It was finally recognised that some of them [fruit and vegetable marketing standards] were 'a little bit daft', for example the rule on how curvy a cucumber could be", says Andy Richardson, technical director of the British Brassica Growers Association, the chosen "house expert" on this matter.

But what is so remarkable here is the story that the BBC isn't telling us, one which is far more interesting than their jaded narrative. It is one which has huge relevance to the EU referendum and the way we are governed.

One part of this story starts in March 1966 with Council Regulation No 41/66/EEC, "laying down common quality standards for cabbages, Brussels sprouts and ribbed celery". And at that stage, interestingly, the standard ran to a mere 840 words.

With such standards forming a core part of the Single Market acquis, they were a long way from being "daft". These are an essential part of any trading system, and very much in a permissory sense. Standardisation and harmonisation means that growers, traders and customers know where they stand - and produce cannot be rejected for arbitrary reasons.  

Needless to say, with experience, such standards evolve and on on 5 June 1987 we saw the cabbage regulation repealed and re-enacted  as Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1591/87, part of a multi-purpose instrument "laying down quality standards for cabbages, Brussels sprouts, ribbed celery, spinach and plums". By then, the cabbage standard had grown to 1,084 words. 

The same revision process took us to 2006 when we saw Council Regulation (EC) No 634/2006. That, incidentally, ran to 1,332 words, marking the elapse of 40 years of cabbage regulation in the Community.

But, on 5 December 2008, the 1987 Regulation was then repealed by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1221/2008, which amended multiple regulations "in the fruit and vegetable sector as regards marketing standards", coming into force on 1 July 2009. Remarkably, there was no replacement standard, ostensibly bringing to an end 43 years of EU cabbage regulation.

However, this was not the case. With the 2008 regulation came what amounted to a revolution in the way the Commission was organising the fruit and vegetable sectors. It is one which the BBC and its "house expert" have completely missed.

"In the interest of harmonisation of the implementation of this provision", the Commission says within the regulation which hitherto had dealt with the characteristics of fruits and vegetables in ever increasing detail, "it is appropriate to define these characteristics in providing for a general marketing standard ...". 

Thus, we saw a major change in approach. Rather than set these standards as it had done in the past, for all but a few products, it stated:
In order to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade, where specific marketing standards are to be laid down for individual products, these standards should be those as set out in the standards adopted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). For the same reason, other products should be considered to conform to the general marketing standard where the holder is able to show they are in conformity with any such applicable standards.
In other words, the Commission was not in any way abandoning the "cabbage regulation" (or even the cucumber regulation). It was simply outsourcing its marketing standards to Geneva, where UNECE had been hard at work producing a whole range of them. For cabbages, it had UNECE standard FFV-09, "concerning the marketing and commercial quality control of headed cabbages".

Interestingly, while the (then) EEC has been in the marketing standards business since 1966, this UNECE standard had been first adopted in 1964. Now, standard-making has gone full circle. In its current 2010 form, UNECE was replacing what has been the last EU regulation. The "cabbage regulation" has come home. And having grown from its original 840 words under the care of the EEC, it  weighs in at 1,606 words.

The implications of this untold (by the BBC) story are profound. The humble cabbage regulation illustrates what is happening right through the entire EU acquis. Under the influence of globalisation and, as the Commission itself says, "in order to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade", the EU is gradually stripping out its own laws and replacing them with standards created by regional and global bodies.

Another untold aspect of this saga is that, after forty years of standard-making, the EU had little choice but to hand the process back to UNECE, so avoiding unnecessary duplication. It is required to do so by the WTO TBT Agreement

Here, in what I have described as the EU's "redundancy notice", Article 2.4 states that, "where technical regulations are required and relevant international standards exist … Members shall use them … as a basis for their technical regulations". The UNECE standards trump EU standards. Under this WTO rule, the EU is obliged to adopt them.

The same, of course, would apply to us if we left the EU. As fully paid-up members of the WTO and UNECE, we would be applying the UNECE regulations in preference to our own. But there would be a difference. Within UNECE, all EU Member States vote as a block, in accordance with a pre-determined common position. We have no independent vote. But outside the EU, we recover our right to vote independently.

With that, when we see the Government leaflet currently tell us: "No other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market, without having to follow EU rules over which they have no real say". We now know this to be a false claim. Only outside the EU could British officials take full part in deciding the intricacies of cabbage regulations

But, if cabbages have a certain comedic value (although not to cabbage growers and traders), the same applies to thousands of other regulations covering trade in goods and services. Increasingly, whether cabbages or financial services, the regulations comprising the Single Market are made at a global level. 

Thus, the only way to get a "real say" in the EU rules, perversely, is to leave the EU. But you'll never hear that from the BBC. When it comes to telling us what is going on, their know-it-all people are the epitome of ignorance.