First Voice

21 May 2002
Le Pen's success in the first round of the French presidential election brought an entertaining interlude at the European Parliament in Brussels when for some hours, we were surrounded by a noisy demonstration. The entertainment heightened when the demonstrators, mostly teenagers, ran rings round the Belgian police - armed to the teeth and backed up by water cannon - and managed to blockade the building, preventing access and exit.
But when the assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party finished second in the Dutch general election, winning 26 seats in the 150-seat parliament, the shock waves round Europe demonstrated a worrying trend. What the Le Pen and Fortuyn phenomena had in common, of course, was that they represented a protest vote by people who no longer find the political consensus acceptable, and regard the political elites as having lost touch with their electorates.
All this might seems a million miles from frying an egg in Joe's caff down Lewisham High Street. But there is a very serious and worrying link. That link is regulations produced by the EU which are set to replace Directive 93/43 on the hygiene of foodstuffs and which came before the European Parliament in the last session of Strasbourg for approval.
The way legislation is passed through this parliament is that it first goes through one or other of the standing committees, guided through by a volunteer MEP called a "rapporteur", before it comes to the full parliament in "plenary session" for a vote. In this case the rapporteur was a German by the name of Herr Schnellhardt, who expressed considerable enthusiasm for this new law, commending it to his colleagues.
But what makes this law particularly bizarre, even by EU standards, it its key part, which makes compulsory the adoption of a system of food safety management known as "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" (HACCP).
The HACCP system was developed in the 1960s for NASA to guarantee high purity food for astronauts involved in the moon landing programme, vital because uncontrolled bodily functions in a space suit can be rather inconvenient. But the system itself, while highly successful, was devised for highly sophisticated food-processing operations and has been adapted successfully only in other large food processing operations.
The central features of HACCP are the preparation of written procedures for each menu or production item in a food operation, its analysis to determine potential hazards and the writing down of a list of controls to be applied at "critical points" in each process - including the frying of a humble egg. Following that, records must be kept to prove that each of the process critical controls have been implemented, and further records must be kept available for inspection, to demonstrate that the system has been reviewed each time changes are made to the operation - like boiling an egg instead of frying it!
In other words, this is a highly bureaucratic, paper-based system which will require all food traders to document almost every action they take, on pain of criminal sanctions - in the UK amounting to a #5,000 fine and/or three months in prison. Food traders must undergo compulsory (and expensive) training in the system and, at a rough estimate, implementation will cost the small and medium business sector some £2 billion a year.

The problem, of course, is that HACCP is a highly technical issue, and the arguments against it are complex - beyond the knowledge of the average MEP - so it took a UK Independence Party MEP, Nigel Farage, to point out the obvious flaw. Something that had been developed for a sophisticated technology-based organisation, he said, is not appropriate for Joe's caff in Lewisham High Street or even Jean Dupont's bistro in the rue de la Révolution in Marseilles.

As importantly, he and I earlier this year, in the very shadow of the European Parliament, toured the local food markets where we found dozens of basic food hygiene failings, somne very serious, like sales staff handling cooked and raw meats while wearing woollen gloves! To all intents and purposes, even the existing law was not being complied with so why, Farage asked, was the Commission creating even more laws?

The Green MEP who spoke nevertheless congratulated Herr Schnellhardt on his work, but she did warn that "we must be mindful of the extra burden which can be placed on small enterprises and ensure that we are not adopting any sort of regulation which risks undermining their livelihoods". Robert Goodwill, for the Conservatives, warned against "knee-jerk" reactions.

But they need not have bothered - the parliament passed the regulations with a thumping majority and, after a few more procedural steps, they are due to come into force in 2004. Said Farage, these technocrats are totally out of touch with reality. They have gone into orbit and landed on another planet like the astronauts for which the HACCP system was devised. If Parliament endorsed it, it would prove that it too was living on another planet.

For sure, when the HACCP system does become law in the UK, it will not bring harassed traders out into the streets, and it will not bring down the government. But it is another rock in the pool, another insult to the hard-working and much abused businessman. More to the point, it is yet another example of how out of touch the ruling elites have become.

All that is underscored by our present position in the parliament. As the weather warms, there is pressure from the MEPs and staff to open up the canteens onto the terraces by the banks of the Rhine, where we can take our coffees and meals in the fresh air. But the parliamentary authorities have refused our entreaties. The security risk is too great they say. So we sit inside in our air-conditioned "palace" while each time we attend, we see more and more guards patrolling the perimeter, armed to the teeth with machine guns.

That is the modern day story of the EU. Protected by machine guns and multiple security systems, the parliament makes insane laws that bear no relation to the realities of modern business and, when the voters register their disapproval, we get more machine guns to protect us - while the torrent of laws continues unabated.

ends