Before his lecture at the University of Flanders, Hendrik Voss reflects on European rules for surprise eggs.
The European Union’s pursuit of regulation is often criticized. Europe is said to be a bullying machine. All sorts of trivial matters are organized and harmonized by the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg, while the critical challenges are hardly dealt with.
Why are there European rules for Kinder Surprise eggs?
It is true that the EU has had a hard time getting off to a good start when dealing with the euro crisis, the refugee issue, or terrorist attacks. These are very sensitive areas, as member states do not want much European involvement. They want to make their own choices, and therefore each one individually, when it comes to taxes, budgets, security services, immigration issues or foreign policy. They only want to make joint decisions if they are all completely OK with it.
This rarely happens. As long as the member states remain handicapped, it will remain difficult to pursue a strong European policy in these areas. It only happens when they feel there is really no alternative. That is why, in the midst of a full-fledged euro crisis, it was decided, for example, to develop budgetary supervision and not to regulate the control of banks in each individual country. There was simply nothing else to do.
In other areas, member states have long agreed that they no longer have the final say. When it comes to foreign trade, environmental policy, animal welfare, agriculture, consumer protection, food safety or competition policy, it is Europe that moves the decisions. In these and many other areas, there is usually no need for consensus to make regulations. Then of course things will move faster, and there will be more rules.
Many of these rules are already very detailed. European legislation states what exactly must be on a pack of cigarettes, and how thick the frame around the health warning should be in millimeters.
The taillight of a tractor, the design of children’s car seats, the description of chocolate, the noise of lawn mowers, the chemical composition of the paint used to color Lego blocks, or the strength of the thread that connects the eyes of a teddy bear – we can give hundreds, perhaps thousands of examples.
The core of European integration
A European law from 2008 also set minimum standards for the protection of pigs. Under European law, each sowing must have a floor of 1.3 square metres, which may consist of a maximum of 15% of drainage holes, which in turn may have a maximum size of 20 mm. The floor should be smooth and not slippery. The light intensity should be at least 40 lux in the barn for at least eight hours a day. It’s just a small sample of a whole host of detailed regulations to make European pig life more enjoyable.
Then there’s Kinder’s surprise: the size of the inner plastic egg, in which the toy sits, is regulated in Europe by a tenth of a millimeter. And Europe demands a joint between the two halves. The two halves were separated from each other, but this is now prohibited. Every egg looks the same, from northern Finland to the beaches of Ibiza. And there is good reason for this, which has to do with the very essence of European integration.
market with rules
The hard work European integration has always been the single market: the union is a large supermarket, where businesses can operate everywhere, consumers can look across borders, and services and goods can be offered everywhere without obstacles. There has always been a broad consensus between left and right in the history of European integration that this has been beneficial.
Compared to the closed and fragmented markets of the past, the European single market has brought many benefits: consumers have more choices and often pay lower prices, while companies can operate at lower cost because they can instantly sell their services and goods across the Union without hindrances, prices or additional checks. It is difficult to quantify precisely, but it is generally assumed that the single market led to more jobs and economic growth.
There is some grumbling on the left that it is the big companies that benefit most from such a single market – and it is no coincidence that they have lobbied so hard for it. At the same time, people on the right grumble about the many rules that the same companies have to comply with.
However, these rules are closely related to a single market. When Jacques Delorsa French socialist, became president of the European Commission in 1985, and his first priority was: he wanted to achieve a single market, and certainly for goods, by the end of 1992, Europe 92project. But at the same time, it was clear to Delors that this market should not be a free West, without rules. Free competition should not lead to a social or environmental graveyard, or to less consumer protection.
Whoever says A must say B
The problem is that in the European market it is very difficult to set the rules at the national level, and therefore individually. Kinder Suprise reportedly appeared on European radar after an incident in one of the member states: a toddler swallowed a chocolate egg, with the egg inside and the toy and everything, apparently that ended badly. There have been calls in some member states to ban products such as surprise eggs, in which plastic toys are wrapped in chocolate. In other member states they didn’t want to go that far.
In one market, of course, it makes no sense for a product to be banned in one country, while it can be sold without any problems in another. Then the consumer can simply go for cross-border shopping. If people really want their own rules in all kinds of areas and also want to enforce them, again barriers will be needed at the borders and it must be checked if each imported product meets its own standards. Then, of course, there was no longer a single market.
So they started discussing those eggs together. And a compromise was made: the egg was not banned, but it had to be made safer. It was agreed that the inner plastic should be larger, so that it could not be swallowed anymore. And the two halves had to be tied together from now on, because even half of an egg could cause misery. It was a compromise that could be found throughout the Union.
In other words: one sticks to the other. If one wants to be a single market, product standards must also be agreed jointly. And before people realize it, European agreements on the quality of taillights and the recognition of food additives are also being made. Then the joint scheme replaces the separate national schemes. All those little things that are regulated at the European level are a logical consequence of the single market. They really stuck with it
This is also the case with regard to environmental policy or social protection: if companies in country A do not have to take into account emissions standards or social agreements about the right to annual leave for employees, while in country B strict standards are applied, then the products of companies from Country B is more expensive, which is detrimental to the single market. Most people buy where it is cheap, and companies in member countries with higher standards will lose out on competition. then threatens Race to the bottom.
So, as Delors said, a level playing field is essential. Is there broad support in Europe for animal welfare, environmental protection and social rights? From now on, we will also make concrete agreements on this jointly. After all, if we don’t, there will be a member state somewhere that takes it less closely, and therefore cheaper, and thus causes problems for the rest.
So we put together that workers in all member states deserve at least four weeks of paid vacation, that companies must adhere to very detailed environmental standards, and that floors on pig farms must be smooth, but not slippery.
holes in the field
Is the playing field perfectly even? No, because there are gaps: there are areas in which it is not possible (yet) to make joint agreements. At the social level, there are quite a few common rules (for example on the layout of workplaces, and even on working time), but no European legislation on minimum wages. There are also no European rules on business taxes. Countries that want a high minimum wage and those tax firms at a serious level are making it hard for themselves.
In theory, in the absence of European rules, member states could set higher standards themselves, but then they would literally market themselves outside the market.
Because in the single market, companies tend to locate where wages are lower and where they are taxed less. After all, they can store their products anywhere, without barriers. In theory, in the absence of European rules, member states could set higher standards themselves, but then they would literally market themselves outside the market.
So they are more likely to compete with each other by setting wages and especially taxes as low as possible. The most effective way to stop such a decline is to organize these things also at the European level. Legislation is needed for this, but many member states are not yet ready to go that far.
So it is true that the European Union is concerned with the details. But there is also a good reason for that. The single market, which is very important from an economic point of view, simply requires a common approach to all kinds of issues. Anyone interested in the environment, game safety or the fate of farm animals can no longer rank this country by country. Because border controls are necessary again to check if the product meets its own standards. Or to check if the supplier has complied with the rules you consider important.
With so many hurdles, soon there will be no European market and Europe will be a group of highly fragmented markets, each with its own rules and standards. In practice, these become closed economies, which are generally not paradises.