unusual U-turn on a new regulation that would have banned restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable bottles. The cave-in came after a week of media pressure that even saw the leaders of Britain and Holland weighing in on the subject at Wednesday's European Council.
The law was set to quietly enter into effect at the start of next
year, and would have mandated that any olive oil served at a restaurant
table be in labelled, pre-packaged bottles with a tamper-proof
dispensing nozzle. It was approved by a recent vote of EU member states,
with 15 out of 27 countries approving it.
This is probably a case of a kernel of a good intention morphing into
a monster PR disaster. At heart this was supposed to be a labelling
regulation – making sure that restaurant owners don't buy expensive
bottles of labelled olive oil and then refill them with cheaper
varieties once they are empty.
But it ended up covering all containers, even unlabelled glass
bottles. This made less sense, given that a consumer can't be tricked by
a misleading label if no label is present.
During his statement explaining the reversal yesterday, agriculture
commissioner Dacian Ciolos was asked why the EU would set this rule for
olive oil and not for wine, for example. Ciolos answered that it is rare
for a restaurant to use refillable containers of wine, a comment for
which he was mocked on Twitter from people who thought the he had never
ordered a carafe of unlabelled house wine in his life.
What the commissioner probably meant was that a restaurant wouldn't refill a labelled
bottle of wine with a different type of wine. But the point is that a
consumer who's happy to drink an unlabelled carafe of wine is also
probably happy to use an unlabelled bottle of olive oil - and doesn't
want to be forced by the EU to use a more expensive labelled bottle.
So why exactly was this law crafted to include all wine containers? Where did it all go wrong?
have suspected foul play. The olive oil industry is powerful in
Southern EU member states (which, not coincidentally, were the ones who
backed this proposal). Olive oil is, after all, a Mediterranean
Could it be that the Commission was pressured by a powerful Southern
European industry lobby to craft the legislation in a way that would
force restaurant owners to buy much more expensive packaged olive oil
containers rather than ordering cheaper varieties in bulk?
During Ciolos's briefing yesterday, one Italian journalist asked if
the Commission was now bowing to the wishes of Northern Europe by
backtracking on the ban. “If you go to Italy, Greece, Spain, you have
good chances to have good olive oil, and [those countries] were in
favour of this," he said. “But if you live in Scandinavia and you eat
whatever from China - maybe that's a political move rather than for
Like so many issues in the EU these days, the questions in the press room were suddenly framed around a North-South divide.
Even if this was a case of Southern EU states using the veneer of
consumer protection to put in a protectionist measure for their own
industry against non-EU competitors, that still doesn't explain why it
passed. The countries producing olive oil are not numerous enough to
have passed this on their own. So why did the other member states let it
During his concluding press conference after Wednesday's European
Council, David Cameron used the opportunity to lambast the olive oil
ban, saying it was endemic of what is wrong with the EU. But it was
pointed out to him that the UK had abstained in the vote to approve it -
a not insignificant detail given that the vote was so close.
Cameron seemed flummoxed, citing “tedious complexities” as the reason
the UK did not vote against the ban. This was, after all, part of a
larger negotiation over olive oil fraud and labelling - apparently it
was all too much for UKREP.
In terms of the UK's relationship with the EU, it seemed all too
typical. The British apparently did a poor job of handling this file,
and something they don't like ended up passing even though they possibly
could have stopped it. They then turned around and blamed ‘meddling
Brussels bureaucrats' for the law being thrust upon them, as if they had
nothing to do with its passage.
It's not just London that behaves in this manner. There is little
impulse (and little reward) for national capitals to take responsibility
for EU laws which they themselves have signed off on. It is all too
easy to blame Brussels when things go wrong, leaving citizens with the
impression that this is an unaccountable bureaucracy which member states
are powerless to oppose.
What's unfortunate is that in the end, a law that was ostensibly to
protect consumers came out looking suspiciously like it was crafted for
the olive oil lobby at the expense of consumers. Perhaps
unsurprisingly, yesterday it was the agriculture lobby which was
strongly criticising the Commission's reversal, not the consumers groups
(strange for something that was ostensibly a piece of consumers
'OliveOilGate' may have provided for some amusement in the press
room, but the fact is this is no way to make law. The way this has
played out is all too typical of the way things are done in this town.