The European Union has quietly approved a ban on large vacuum cleaners in an effort to "re-educate" spendthrift citizens who consume too much energy.
European bureaucrats have also imposed bans or restrictions on thousands of other consumer products, including bananas, clothes dryers, cosmetics, cucumbers, fruit jam, laptop computers, laundry detergents, light bulbs, olive oil, plastic bags, refrigerators, showerheads, television sets, tobacco, toilets, toys, urinals and wine cooling cabinets.
The most recent ban—approved by the European Parliament on October 8—involves chocolate candy cigarettes because they "appeal to minors and consequently form a potential gateway to using tobacco products."
The European Union and its supporters say the bans are necessary to improve the energy efficiency, environmental friendliness and health standards of the 28-member bloc.
But critics say the seemingly endless number of bans, prohibitions, restrictions, regulations and edicts being enacted by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels—many of which are being justified by eco-related concerns—smacks of paternalism. They claim it is over-regulation, and an unacceptable intrusion into the private lives of 500 million EU citizens, who should be allowed to make their own decisions.
The vacuum cleaner ban was quietly approved during the summer holidays in August and went largely unnoticed by the general public until after the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published a story about the new law on October 24.
"As of September 2014, only vacuum cleaners that consume less than 1600 watts may be sold in the EU," according to FAZ. "From 2017 only a maximum of 900 watts will be allowed. At the same time, the vacuum cleaner must be fitted with a label that grades energy consumption on a scale of seven letters and colors: The letter 'A' on a green background means very low energy consumption and the letter 'G' on a red background means very high energy consumption."
Critics say the EU's move to restrict the power of domestic vacuum cleaners—current vacuum cleaners boast an average of 1,800 watts—will reduce their effectiveness in sucking up dust and dirt; and, because households will have to use the new machines longer, they may end up actually increasing energy consumption.
Others say it will reduce the ability of vacuum cleaners to remove fine particles from the air, and instead pump them back into the atmosphere, potentially leading to side-effects for allergy and asthma sufferers.
In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, Giles Chichester, a Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar, said: "Banning powerful cleaners in households could have a severe impact on allergy and asthma sufferers. This is another example of how EU legislation has good intentions but sometimes there are detrimental side-effects. I hope that both the EU and the UK government can find a way around this so that we improve energy efficiency without forcing people back to their broomsticks."
FAZ puts it this way: "Housewives and househusbands must be re-educated. Previously any halfway savvy consumer would relate the power of a vacuum cleaner to the horsepower of a car: the higher the wattage, the higher the suction power. So will everyone who uses a 'Green A' vacuum cleaner in the future be forced to use it three or four times to ensure that all crumbs are absorbed from under the breakfast table?"
The vacuum cleaner ban is part of the European Ecodesign Directive, a wide-ranging legal framework approved in 2005 that establishes mandatory ecological requirements for energy-using and energy-related products and appliances in all 28 EU member states. The directive currently covers more than 40 product groups, which are said to be responsible for around 40% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions.
European bureaucrats have used Ecodesign regulations to ban dozens of products, including the incandescent light bulb, which has been outlawed in all EU countries. As of September 1, 2012, hundreds of millions of EU citizens—who were never consulted on the issue—have been required to buy energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, which contain toxic materials such as mercury.
Because the EU does not require retailers to take back the new bulbs, 80% end up in household garbage, leaving the mercury to ultimately seep into the soil or groundwater, according to an Austrian documentary film called "Bulb Fiction."
The makers of the film believe that the European light-bulb lobby, including major companies such as Philips and Osram, are behind the demise of the cheaper incandescent light bulb because of the larger profit margins associated with more expensive energy-saving light bulbs.
According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the EU ban on light bulbs was motivated less about genuine environmental concerns than it was about scoring political points on the international stage.
"A ban on incandescent light bulbs, which would be relatively easy to implement, would enable the EU to score some quick victories on the climate front. After all, the EU's pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020 was highly ambitious from the start," according to the magazine.
Light bulbs and vacuum cleaners are not the only products targeted for higher energy efficiency. As of November 1, "the weighted condensation efficiency of condensation tumbler dryers must not be less than 60%," according to European Commission Regulation No. 932/2012 dated October 3, 2012 which implements "Directive 2009/125/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council with regard to ecodesign requirements for household tumble driers."
On November 4, the European Commission—the executive body of the European Union—adopted a proposal that requires member states to implement measures to reduce the use of plastic bags. That same week, Brussels announced criteria to standardize the flushing of all toilets and urinals in the EU. The decision followed years of efforts by experts working for the European Commission's environment directorate, as well as "stakeholders" studying "user behavior" and "best practices."
According to a 60-page technical report on European toilets and urinals—which took two years and an unspecified amount of taxpayer money to complete—EU experts have agreed that two "key elements" appear to affect the water consumption of flushing toilets and urinals: their design and user behavior. Regarding user behavior and "based on the discussions with stakeholders," the experts have decided to set the average flush volume as "the arithmetic average of one full flush volume and three reduced flush volumes."
In May 2013, the European Commission announced the so-called Plant Reproductive Material Law, an Orwellian directive that would make it illegal to "grow, reproduce or trade" any vegetable seeds that have not been "tested, approved and accepted" by a new EU bureaucracy named the EU Plant Variety Agency. The new law would give Brussels authority over all plants and seeds bought and sold in all 28 EU member states, and would prohibit home gardeners from growing their own plants from non-regulated seeds. Critics say the new law is an effort by the EU to gain "total domination of the food supply."
"This is an instance of bureaucracy out of control," according to Ben Gabel, director of the UK-based Real Seed Catalogue. "All this new law does is create a whole new raft of EU civil servants being paid to move mountains of papers round all day, while interfering with the right of people to grow what they want, and charging fees for the use of plants that were domesticated and bred by the public over thousands of years of small-scale agriculture," says Gabel.
Arguably the most famous examples of EU over-regulation involve rules on the physical appearance of fruit and vegetables. For example, European Commission Regulation No. 2257/94—also known as the "bendy banana law"—states that all bananas bought and sold in the EU must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature."
According to the regulation, "Extra class" bananas must be of "superb quality," while "Class I" bananas can have "slight defects of shape," and "Class II" bananas can have full-on "defects of shape." The document states that the size of the banana is determined by "the grade, i.e. the measurement, in millimeters, of the thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicularly to the longitudinal axis."
In the instance of cucumbers, European Commission Regulation No. 1677/88, "Class I" and "Extra class" cucumbers are allowed a bend of 10mm per 10cm of length. "Class II" cucumbers can bend twice as much. Any cucumbers that are curvier may not be bought or sold.
Amid public outcry, Brussels eventually reversed its ban on curvy cucumbers—as well as on imperfectly shaped Brussels sprouts, carrots, cherries and garlic—as part of the EU's effort to cut "unnecessary" red tape.
"We simply don't need to regulate this sort of thing at EU level," EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said, adding that in the context of skyrocketing food prices and general economic difficulties, it made "no sense" to throw away perfectly good products due to their shape.
The "eurocrats" in Brussels have suffered a number other symbolic defeats by European citizens fed up with runaway regulations. In March 2013, for example, the British government relaxed EU rules defining fruit jam.
According to EU rules, jam can only be labelled as such if it has more than 60% sugar in it. However, under new rules proposed by London, that figure will fall to 50%. The difference had created what has been called a "no-jams land," meaning that jams with a sugar content between 50% and 60% had no legal name; anything containing less than 60% had to be called a "fruit spread," while jams with less than 50% sugar were to be called a "conserve."
"This is exactly the sort of ridiculous red tape that we want to do away with," according to Vince Cable, the British Business Secretary, said in an interview with the London Telegraph. "This looks like jam, smells like jam and tastes like a jam—the only thing stopping it being called jam is some outdated rules. We want to sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy like this which is costing business time and money and stopping them doing what they should be doing: creating jobs, boosting the economy and in some cases, making jam."
In May 2013, the European Commission announced plans to ban the use of refillable bottles and dipping bowls of olive oil at restaurant tables. The refillable bottles are a staple on restaurant tables across Europe for diners who want to douse bread or salads.
The EU said that as of January 1, 2014, restaurants may only serve olive oil in tamper-proof packaging, labelled to EU standards. It said the move would protect consumers and improve hygiene.
But after critics accused Brussels of unwarranted meddling at a time of economic crisis, the European Union quickly backed down. According to Dacian Cioloş, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, the ban was "not formulated in such a way as to assemble widespread support."
The EU's reversal was possibly influenced by the release on May 13 of a Pew Research Center poll showing that positive views of the European Union are at historical lows in most of the eight countries surveyed, even among the young, the only hope for the EU's future. According to the poll, entitled "The New Sick Man of Europe: The European Union," the favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013.
In Germany, meanwhile, opposition is mounting to an EU directive on water-saving showerheads and faucets. According to the German business newspaper Handelsblatt, German appliances are already using 20% less water than in 1990, leading to a situation where the country's sewage pipes are in danger of drying up and cracking because not enough water is being flushed through the system.
In any event, German politicians appear increasingly fatalistic about the future of the EU's Soviet-style "central planning" apparatus. According to Sven Giegold, a Member of the European Parliament with Germany's Green Party, Europe's economic system "has now become too complex for a democracy."
Holger Krahmer, a Member of the European Parliament for Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), puts it this way: "We are heading for a dictatorship of bureaucrats."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.