EC: Trade is tied up in red tape.

EC: Trade is tied up in red tape. - The reality of a frontier-free Europe lags far behind single market rhetoric.

by Peter Wilsher.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The reality of a frontier-free Europe lags far behind single market rhetoric.

Three months into the single market and the frustrations are mounting, with complaints accumulating in Ben Nevis sized piles. What is all this stuff about frontier-free Europe ask the victims, when two local trading standards officials and one half-competent lawyer seem able to block even the most legitimate trading enterprise and tie it up in red tape for years?

Blame all that heady talk about subsidiarity, say the Europhiles. Do not go on about the need to preserve ancient rights and local customs and then grouse when it is turned against you by people desperate to protect their own little commercial niche. You got very uptight and hoity-toity when Brussels tried to tell you how to smoke a herring or wire an electric plug; so what excuse have you for grumbling when your Northumbrian kipper offends accepted custom and practice in Schleswig-Holstein, and your Wednesbury-built toaster, which has been claiming satisfied customers for decades, mysteriously fails to meet the safety standards expected in Reggio di Calabria?

It all sounds very trivial, of course, when you talk about it in that tone of voice. But collectively meeting this sort of obstacle is starting to add up to a formidable amount of lost profit and wasted executive time. Thanks to Maastricht and Yugoslavia and the Bundesbank's interest rate policies there are quite enough problems to cloud the European ideal. The last thing anyone needs at this juncture is the discovery that it can be difficult even to sell these people a simple hatpin if they are sufficiently determined to put obstacles in your way.

Norbert Joris, who is both the current president of the Federation of Belgian Enterprises and an energetic exporter of products ranging from yachts and bricks to safety lights and computer hardware, has been finding out the hard way just how many rocks it is possible for his competitors to strew on the road. His lamps, for example, are designed to cut out after two hours, but France insists on 60 minutes. His prefabricated houses have to run a gauntlet of local building regulations (to such an extent that he has so far managed to sell only two outside Belgium, and they went to the Dutch Antilles). Only his work stations have so far proved trouble free, and that is mainly because rival manufacturers have failed to agree a sufficiently effective set of standards.

Sometimes the sufferers are sufficiently aggrieved to do something about this sort of thing through legal or diplomatic, or even EC competition regulations, but they may well find themselves committed to a long uphill struggle.

A German goldsmith whose bracelets and earrings have been keeping stylish Hausfrauen happy for almost 50 years finds, to his fury, that his standards sometimes fail to pass muster with Britain's 600-year-old Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, which allows them to refuse him the vital assay mark which only they are empowered to award. He is taking the matter to court, but few would give him better than evens on his chances.

Likewise an English cutler has fallen foul of Germany's notoriously pedantic advertising rules, which pulled him up for claiming that his knives were "laboratory tested" when only a sample of them had actually been put under the microscope. A whole expensively mounted marketing campaign has foundered on that one painful point, which, it appears, only the EC Commission has the power to by-pass. But judging by the speed at which they are now dealing with such problems, it would be an optimist who expected action much before the end of 1995, even if they decided the case was good.

Things get even more tangled when governments join in the game of doing down the interloper. Back in 1988, Greece developed a wonderful wheeze for protecting its domestically-built electronic cash registers by insisting that no machine of this kind could be offered for sale unless it contains a significant element of local manufacture. That clearly flouted whole chunks of the Treaty of Rome and Athens was unequivocally informed that it must mend its ways. Three years later, when Brussels had received not even the courtesy of an acknowledgment, the arrangement was considered by the European Court of Justice, which unanimously struck it down (on the same grounds that it once made Spain accept computer keyboards, even when they did not include that characteristic little Iberian wiggle over the letter "n"). That was last July, but although the Greek government meekly agreed this time to conform, they have still not quite got around to amending the rules. So do not bother just yet to dispatch a salesman to that promising little mini-market in the Piraeus.

The depressing truth seems to be that single market reality still lags an awful long way behind the rhetoric. So perhaps we should not be too surprised to discover from the survey just carried out by Royal Mail International just how keen Britain's small businesses are on pursuing this particular crock of gold. Of the 2,000 they asked, only one in five claimed to see Europe as offering major opportunities, and only one in 10 was preparing to commit significant resources to exploring potential targets. Worse still, almost two out of three confessed they had no idea how to set about writing a business letter in a foreign language. But then, why should they bother if most of their correspondence is likely to be with competition lawyers?

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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