What Horsemeat And Fish Tell Us About Europe

SONY DSCThe scandal of horsemeat being declared as beef and smuggled across borders and then into processed food is sweeping Europe. According to the Financial Times a few days ago, the process involved “horse meat from a Romanian abattoir being sold to a French supplier by way of a Cypriot trader, and then passed on to a French food processing company before landing on British and French supermarket shelves.”

Since then the “horseplay” has spread to Germany and from beefburgers to lasagna.

What needs to be recognised beyond all the immediate hullabaloo is that the scandal shows just how illusory it is to imagine that Europe can function as a ‘common market’ without all the red-tape and constraints on sacred national sovereignty that eurosceptics so ferociously decry. Production for the market requires regulation. And if we want to enjoy the benefits of a highly developed international division of labour – and they are real – then we need agreement on common rules between the trading partners.

Now, in principle such rules could be established without pooling sovereignty. All you have to do is to get a legitimate representative of 27 countries to sign up to a common set of rules and have it ratified by 27 sovereign national parliaments. It is just that you then give each country a veto and a huge temptation to use it to play strategic games with the other 26 trading partners. And every time circumstances change you need to get the 27 representatives together and to agree again. Such intergovernmentalism does not look likely to generate efficient solutions. And that is what you need to remember the next time you read about EU regulations running to thousands of pages. Even then you are not done: what happens if a country fails to apply the common rules? If they are to have any clout, supranational elements will certainly be necessary in the area of enforcement. All of which shows how fatuous it is to criticise, on principle, supranational meddling in national affairs and the associated loss of national sovereignty. (And no, this does not, of course, mean, that everything that “Brussels” imposes on Member States is beyond reproach.)

The recent debate on the EU budget also clearly shows the limits of intergovernmentalism. Wherever unanimity is required, things rapidly descend into a zero-sum scrap in which national politicians are rated according to how successfully they have bullied their partners, and even serious newspapers score the event like a 27-way boxing match: Cameron – winner!, Merkel – winner!, Hollande – loser! The problem is that this obscures the real news, which is that the outcome is a budget plan that is completely illogical from the point of view of rationally addressing the challenges faced by European citizens.

A more striking, and encouraging, recent example, also comes from the food counter: fish. For decades EU fishery ministers have regularly met and solemnly agreed to carry on overfishing Europe’s territorial waters. They have cynically allowed even the excessive quotas they had established to be flouted with impunity. They would presumably have carried on their intergovernmental bickering until the very last fish had been caught: Le poisson est a nous! Nein, der Fisch gehört uns! I want my fish back! Now the European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly for an ambitious proposal to prevent overfishing. It takes a supranational institution to do what everyone knows is the right – indeed the only – thing to do. (The bad news is that this proposal now will now be sent to the Council – representing the Member States – which will almost certainly water it down.) Here, too, Europe’s media have largely failed Europe’s citizens by not looking beyond the specific matter at hand and pointing out the bigger issue.

The tragedy is that when things don’t work in Europe – and they often do not – the reaction of most people is to call for competences to be brought “back home”. The reality is that it is the still largely intergovernmental nature of Europe that in most instances is what prevents it working effectively. When 27 countries defend national sovereignty they maintain it individually but lose it collectively. Everyone suffers from races to the bottom, free-riding, externalities and myriad other problems that require effective collective action. The euro area crisis is vivid testament to that. It is sensible supranational solutions that are required to address the prime concerns of European citizens. Not just meat and fish, but jobs, inequality, living standards, a sustainable future.


  1. mdj says

    Mr Watt’s CV seems to have been based on the promotion of a European state entity, so it’s not a surprise that his proposed solution is more of the problem. Can he identify any sovereign state where it is legal to describe horse as beef? Are Norway and Switzerland plagued by such problems?
    He says:.’ When 27 countries defend national sovereignty they maintain it individually but lose it collectively. Everyone suffers from races to the bottom’
    Cartels are the answer, then? Surely the country which can verify that its food supply is the safest will have a competitive advantage that will force the others to raise their game? And why only 27? Why should Turkey, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Russia not be beneficiaries of this trans-national well-being?

  2. Chris says

    “what happens if a country fails to apply the common rules? If they are to have any clout, supranational elements will certainly be necessary in the area of enforcement”…this is exactly right!In my experience skating around and working in 10 EU countries…they are NOT standardised……only on the surface.Many of them are cheating and ‘bending rules’…no names today…..

  3. says

    where there is human beings, there is greed, there is corruption, there goes rules ! That is the problem.

    I agreed we have to set-up rules so that we can work towards common goals. BUT, we must work on how to deal with countries/states such as Romania and others, who STILL is/are very corrupted countries that EU allowed into. Once they are in EU, they can do what they want because they now is ‘part’ of EU.

    Perhaps we should get rid of these corrupted states and re-negotia for entry to EU again at later stage. Meaning take away all their RIGHTS. As long as we have ‘unscrupulous’ states that do not seems to ‘understand’ rules, we will have problems.

    The original EU states, Benelux, Germany, France, etc. have a totally different standard than these other newer member states. I do not wish to ‘use one stone and kills all’ statement, but these member states bring in just too much problems to our societies. Horse meat is just one that we know of. What’s next? What about social disordery?

    I find it difficult to discriminate people just because they come from certain groups. On the other hand, we are just being presented with just too many cases. We have to put a stop somewhere. We have to be honest to ourselves. These people do not understand rules. Their own rules, in their own country, are broken from the top down. The only thing they understand is MONEY.