Christopher Booker's Notebook
Last week EU trade ministers and European commissioners gathered in Brussels for a two-day "Competitiveness Council". Their theme was one of the EU's longer-running farces, known as the "Lisbon agenda": a solemn pledge by EU governments in 2000 that by 2010 the EU would be transformed into "the most competitive, dynamic and knowledge-based economy in the world". Since then the EU, already the most uncompetitive economic bloc in the developed world, has slid even further down the league table.
The chief reason for this, it is generally agreed, is the ever-growing mountain of regulations, the one area in which EU productivity is second to none.
A measure of the determination brought to bear on this problem last week was that, of the 101,811 directives and regulations issued by Brussels between 1973 and 2002, the Commission was now prepared to contemplate amending no fewer than 15.
Meanwhile it continues to churn out new ones at a rate of 3,500 a year - one of which, also on last week's agenda, is the so-called Reach directive (the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals).
Under Reach, which will be administered by the new European Chemicals Agency in Finland, every business that uses chemicals will have to pay hefty sums to test and register every chemical - and every combination of chemicals - that it uses, to show that these are both safe and environmentally friendly.
Few industries will be unaffected by this astonishingly cumbersome new regime (when it was first proposed, even the Commission accepted that its initial cost to the EU economy would be £22 billion).
One of the sectors that is particularly affected, because chemicals account for a sixth of its costs, is the European leather industry. In the EU, this uses about 6,000 chemical substances to process, soften and colour the 400,000 tonnes of leather a year that go into furniture, footwear, clothing and fashion accessories.
Last summer the industry and the Commission held a conference in Brussels. It began with a soothing speech from a senior Commission official, who assured his audience that the effects of Reach would be nothing but positive. Delegates were in a fairly somnolent state, as was later reported by the trade magazine World Leather, until Dr Alois Puntener of TFL, a German company specialising in chemical products for the leather industry, began reading a paper on Reach's financial impact.
As Dr Puntener laid out the figures, the delegates were suddenly all attention. After emphasising that Reach would add nothing to safety, which is already well regulated, he explained how its impact on the industry would be devastating.
On small volume production, the costs of registration could add 200 per cent to chemical production costs. For Europe's 2,800 tanneries, Reach could add up to 6 per cent to the price of finished leather, which for many, in a tight market, is more than their existing profit margin.
The most devastating effect would be on Europe's smaller leather producers and manufacturers using leather dependent on subtle combinations of chemicals. Even if a substance is in common use, it would still have to be tested and authorised again each time it is used in a new combination, making most of them wholly uneconomical.
The overall consequence of Reach, Dr Puntener showed, would be drastically to reduce choice. A significant proportion of Europe's leather production, along with many thousands of jobs, will simply be exported outside the EU, not least to China, which is already the world's largest leather exporter. A most valuable contribution to that dream of making the EU, within six years, "the most competitive, dynamic, knowledge-based economy in the world".
Did Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Prescott all recently commit a criminal offence? The promise in the Queen's Speech of a referendum on the EU constitution makes it all the more urgent to resolve an extraordinary anomaly which arose during the referendum on a regional assembly for the North-East.
Among high-profile campaigners for a Yes vote were Messrs Blair, Brown and Prescott, all of whom visited the North-East in the run-up to polling day.
Yet, as was pointed out by Neil Herron, the director of the "North-East No" campaign, the speeches and interviews by these ministers were in breach of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.
This makes it an offence for ministers to "publish" any material relevant to a referendum during the 28-day "purdah period" before polling day. Mr Herron has in his possession a letter from Ian Scotter of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister stating that the term "publication", according to Treasury counsel, "also applies to speeches and press interviews".
A letter from one of Mr Scotter's colleagues states that "ministers are permitted to speak on the issues during the 'purdah period' if they make it clear that they are doing so in a personal or political capacity and not as a government minister".
Yet when these eminent politicians appeared in the North-East, they took no obvious steps to make clear that they were not speaking in their ministerial capacity, but only as the MPs for Sedgefield, Dunfermline and Hull East.
A series of parliamentary questions has now been tabled by Lord Stoddart of Swindon, asking the Government to confirm that these letters correctly interpret the law - and to make clear who is responsible for enforcing it.
The Electoral Commission disclaims any responsibility. Whose duty will it be, then, when Tony Blair appears on television as Prime Minister during the final days of the referendum on the European constitution, to tap him on the shoulder and say, "I am arresting you for a breach of the Act"?
It may seem ridiculous, but if politicians are allowed openly to break their own laws, does it not become a rather serious matter?
It takes some genius, when world steel prices are at a record high, to fill several fields around Manchester with 120,000 abandoned fridges - as pictured in last week's press.
The cause of this fridge mountain (as foreseen in this column in October 2001) is the EU's misconceived and unworkable ban on the recycling of fridges, on the grounds that they contain small amounts of ozone-depleting chemicals.
This legislative blunder destroyed overnight an efficient industry for exporting old fridges to the Third World, which earned Britain millions of pounds a year. And now that we find we have no idea what to do with all the defunct fridges, the total cost of our quandary has been estimated at £300 million.
Also making the news last week was the ruling by Brussels that it will withhold £600 million from payments claimed by the British Government for its costs in the 2001 foot and mouth disaster.
This represented part of the sum that, according to the Commission, was overpaid to farmers, to buy their acquiescence in the pre-emptive cull of about eight million healthy animals. As was reported here at the time, this cull was in breach of criminal law, since the Government had no legal power under the Animal Health Act 1981 to kill healthy livestock that had not been directly exposed to infection.
These two episodes have between them cost us nearly £1 billion. But when UK taxpayers are paying £252 million a week - or £10 a taxpayer - to Brussels just for the privilege of belonging to the EU in the first place, who is going to worry about the odd billion?
Peter Hain says that, in light of Mugabe's "murderous rule", he was "opposed" to England's cricket tour of Zimbabwe. Why then did our Government not forbid the visit, so that the International Cricket Council would not then have been able to threaten our cricket establishment with £1 million fine for breach of contract?
What everyone missed was why our ministers had no power to do so. As part of the common foreign and security policy, we have agreed that our policy towards Zimbabwe is subject to a "common position" with our EU partners.
Across a wide range of foreign policy issues, no government can now act unilaterally. And on Zimbabwe, as Mr Hain was well aware, there was no way France and others would have agreed. The humiliation of England's cricketers was inevitable.