The European Commission’s former president, Jacques Delors, once stated that “you cannot fall in love with the Single Market”. Yet the common standards and trade facilitation that it has brought about over the past 30 years – not to mention the possibility to live, work and study across the Union – should be a source of affection for all Europeans.
Sadly, the fundamentals of this truly great European endeavour are in danger due to the unilateral efforts of several countries that are undermining what it has achieved so far.
How EU countries are failing the Single Market
An example of one such threat comes in the form of France’s new anti-waste law which, since it entered into force, mandates that all fast-food outlets replace disposable with reusable tableware. A seemingly positive yet drastic unilateral step was taken before the EU concludes its own revision of the packaging waste law. Startlingly, this trend can be observed across the EU, with Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany having also introduced similar laws.
Ireland’s draft regulation for mandatory health warning labels on alcohol products in the Irish Public Health (Alcohol) Act is another case in point. These labels will cover three warnings if they enter into force: a general one to inform the public of the danger of alcohol consumption; another informing people of the danger of drinking when pregnant; and a warning to inform people of the direct link between alcohol and cancer. Should it come into being, this proposal would destabilize other European countries and lead to significant imbalance across the EU.
A national backlash against unilateral measures
Ireland’s unilateral measures are being treated with disdain by some of their fellow European countries, such as those in the Mediterranean, who rightly believe they would lead to fragmentation and different marketing standards.
In general, national measures need to be shown to be both robust and proportional to receive a green light at the EU level. In the case of Ireland, officials publicly admitted that the proposed measures would be in breach of the Single Market. In response, a coalition of states, led by Italy, Spain and France, was rightly up in arms, issuing objections to the Irish proposal.
However, in a rather bizarre and surprising move, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, did not contest the Irish proposal on internal market grounds – notwithstanding the fact that the available evidence base for introducing health warning labels is rather weak. Furthermore, the absence of transparency means it is impossible to say if new or compelling evidence has been discovered.
The Irish government should have demonstrated that health warning labels are essential and more proportionate than other measures such as public awareness campaigns. Yet this seems to be missing and a negative precedent appears to have been set. By invoking the “public health” and “environment” card, national administrations can seemingly introduce what they want – even when based on weak evidence and without sound proportionality tests – to the detriment of the European Single Market.
Time to take a stand against unilateral proposals
The EU should stand up to any measures threatening the integrity of the single market. If it does not, what will stop other governments from devising their own trade rules? By extension, this logic would start applying to other areas like electronic products and healthcare equipment, thus chipping away at the foundations of the internal market.
It is time for the 27 EU members to get back to the drawing board, think collectively about the pending challenges and accept that unilateral intervention and demands for special treatment can only make everyone collectively poorer. Measures, such as the ones proposed in France and Ireland, increase bureaucracy and costs for companies – many of which are SMEs and micro-businesses – and would lead to other countries jumping on the bandwagon and demanding national labels of their own.
Unprecedented geopolitical disturbances call for a more united European Union, not for more trade barriers that would ultimately harm the EU’s economy and its citizens alike.