Last October the President of the European Commission published an article in the British newspaper The Telegraph in which he criticized the unnecessary regulation by the EU. In his article Barroso called upon a Europe that is “big on big things and smaller on smaller things”. Even if there is no direct link between low participation rates in European elections or growing protest vote for populist parties, the EU is too often perceived as a bureaucratic machine aiming at regulating every aspect of citizens’ lives. To discuss if this perception is true, we debated the regulation of products and behaviors of citizens by the EU and its member states.
From the use of tobacco, over product labeling, the question of how much water a toilet flushes, which light bulbs we can buy and the maximum angle a ladder can have, there are plenty of stories to exemplify what in German is called “Verbotskultur”. Holger Krahmer MEP, member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, is one of the few politicians to actively oppose the inflation of bans in our societies. He challenges the mainstream not out of principle, but when he has good reasons to think that freedom of choice and responsibility of the consumers is the better way to go. He is concerned by the progressive tendency to overregulate which leads us to a world of “dos and don’ts”. “There is no such thing as a zero risk world”, Krahmer rightly pointed out. Recalling his experience when growing up in Eastern Germany, where choice for consumers was limited, he urged politicians and civil servants to be more cautious when regulating and try to find a better balance between risk reduction efforts and freedom of choice.
Jacob Mchangama, Director of Legal Affairs, Center for Political Studies (CEPOS), very much agreed with Holger Krahmer. In his opinion, we are witnessing a dynamic in which the welfare state wants to control
citizens’ behavior based on the argument that it also pays for social and health services. But people have to remain responsible for their behavior and the one of their children. Furthermore, Mchangama drew the attention towards the fact that bans can also limit certain benefits, as has been the case with the ban of certain mosquito repellents, which has caused an increase in malaria cases. Indeed, even if bans are sometimes necessary and certain risks are simply too high to be taken, no institution is infallible. Even if the European Commission bases its regulations on thorough risk assessments, there is no guarantee that the ban is really necessary or that there are no perverse effects to it. Mchangama proposed to focus attention on other systems than prohibition. Positive and negative incentives, good educational programmes in schools and peer review mechanisms such as “tripadvisor” or “trustpilot” could be other ways to benefit the consumers.
But, the major part of the blame goes to the EU institutions. Even if the Commission often only takes up proposed regulation from member states or stakeholders such as consumer representations, it takes the blame for over-regulating. However, as Maija Laurila, Head of Unit of the Product and Service Safety at DG SANCO, pointed out, EU wide regulation is also often required due to the common market. If a regulation in one member state represents an impediment to the internal market, action has to be taken at the EU level. But as a principle regulation, if necessary, should still be undertaken at regional or national level, before EU wide standardization is necessary.
Majia Laurila also explained that the aim of regulation and standardization is not to determine every bit of people’s lives. It is about reducing risk to an acceptable level because consumers cannot make their own risk assessment on every product they buy, e.g. on the chemical components of paint. She also defended the increase in regulation by pointing out that with increased medical and scientific knowledge new risks are being discovered which require new regulation. Stephen Russell, Secretary-General of the European Association for the Coordination of Consumer Representation in Standardization (ANEC), agreed with his colleague from the Commission and explained that standards are not about the nitty-gritty, but about setting a broad framework. This process involves many relevant stakeholders. Russell further agreed with the other panelists that event if toy standardization is an important step in making children’s lives safer, the main responsibility still lies with the parents.
Indeed, as a zero risk world is a utopia, each and every one of us has to make safe choices based on his or her personal responsibility. As overregulation and red tape not only hinders business and innovation, but also annihilates the citizen, the balance between safety and personal responsibility should always be kept in mind. In the end, for a democracy to work we need free and responsible citizens, not children of the nanny state.