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The World at Large: Counting peas.

One of the universal laws of bureaucracy is that when bureaucrats get bored — which is frequently — they think up new regulations; in just the same way as nature abhors a vacuum, so officials abhor the slightest irregularity in the way the world works.

Of course, bureaucrats are a problem everywhere, but I live in Europe, and the European Union is one massive bureaucracy supported and maintained by taxpayers’ money. A friend of my wife’s got a job in Brussels and was basically paid obscene amounts of money to do nothing at all.

And it shows. European bureaucracy amply demonstrates just what can happen when overpaid and underworked administrators get the hands on a web browser: they look for things to regulate.

Although a lot of the stories are exaggerated by eager journalists (and even politicians), there are enough documented stories of regulatory zeal to be getting on with.

On the level

There’s the story of the ski-lifts, for example. Brussels decided that every EU member state needed to draw up safety regulations for ski-lifts, cable cars and the like, or risk incurring heavy fines. A tad ridiculous in a country like the Netherlands, which is about as mountainous as a slightly creased sheet of paper. Germany, a nation always happy to have good, solid guidelines to go by, got to work. The country works on a federal system, and so the job of drawing up these regulations was delegated to the individual provinces.

Berlin, however — both a city and a province in its own right — is even flatter than the Netherlands and was, at the time, going through some severe financial difficulties: the city government had more important things to talk about. So they did the sensible thing: they ignored the directive and got on with the task of finding jobs for all the unemployed Berliners. In Brussels, though, despite the fact that all the German provinces that actually had hills and mountains had written their safety regulations, because Berlin hadn’t, Germany was deemed to be in breach of the directives, and was consequently threatened with a huge fine. The city of Berlin, about to ask central government for a massive loan, had no choice but to photocopy the Bavarian regulations and sign them into law and then wonder where in Berlin they could possibly build a ski-lift.

When is a wine not a wine?

The latest bureaucratic wheeze, though, concerns something rather closer to my home: the fate of Apfelwein. This is a cider-like drink popular in this region, usually served slightly diluted and either cold (in the summer) or hot (in the winter). The bored, office-bound hermits of Brussels have now discovered Babelfish, and realised that Apfelwein translates as “apple wine”. Fired up on vast quantities of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they have decreed that the word “wine” may only be applied to drinks made from the fermented juice of grapes.

The Germans have a word for people who dream up nonsense like this: Erbsenzähler translates literally as “one who counts peas”, and perfectly captures the fussy pedantry indulged in here. They themselves would probably argue that such regulations are there to protect consumers, but that begs the question of what they are to be protected against. Who on this earth, apart from perhaps Jessica Simpson, would be seriously disappointed to discover the apple wine is, in fact, made with apples and not grapes?

With a little luck, this idea will be abandoned, but there are many other products the eurocrats can get their hands on. I append a short list:

  • Peanut butter is not butter.
  • Pineapples are not apples and they don’t come from pine trees.
  • Camomile tea has no tea in it.
  • Soda water contains no soda in it.
  • Coca-Cola no longer contains coca.
  • Grapefruit have nothing to do with grapes.
  • Hamburgers are made with beef, not ham.
  • Fish fingers are not, as the name implies, the fingers of fish.

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