I am a professed Europhile but I am afraid the obsessive micromanagement of the EU, with its intrusion into even our personal lives, is nearing insanity. And since every sane European person must have a say on the problem, I offer you my personal view.
It all started during the last holiday period. The trouble with holidays is that you have to visit the supermarket every now and then, no matter how remote your area of choice in rural Spain.
So, as I wandered clumsily between rows of ready-made soups and wines, wondering if the detergent I had chosen was going to be thrown at my head upon returning home, I was surprised to overhear a grocery employee clearly telling a customer: “Definitively not — unless behind closed doors and with no police in sight”.
In the terrifying times in which we live, I immediately perked up my ears as much as possible. Neither of the ladies in question looked much like a terrorist, and the customer — in her forties, a mother of several children and rather good-looking — had a young boy with her.
But, who knows? You can trust no one these days. The start of the Third World War seemed too much to suspect, but what if they had been talking about preparing a homemade bomb?
On the other hand, people seeking places of hiding in which to interchange slogans and such things, as in Hungary and Prague during Soviet occupation, also came to mind.
Fortunately, I did not need to sharpen my ear very much because the voices of the ladies, as they talked, became louder. What the employee was denying to her customer except behind closed doors and without police in the environs, turned out in the end to be something like beef minced simultaneously with ham, apparently a culinary favourite of her family.
She said she obtained it easily enough in other, less legalistic — or perhaps less often inspected — shops. The heroic antiterrorist role I imagined for myself vanished in the twinkling of an eye and I was brought back to ordinary, kitchen, life.
On my way home, while still hesitating about the risky, unknown brand of detergent I had chosen, I could not refrain from imagining poor children eating unhealthy things, but also — why not? — modern, law-abiding children who would oppose eating anything not allowed by European law, which our protagonists might perhaps at that very time be breaking secretly and with impunity.
I also imagined bad parents being denounced by good neighbours, and social workers investigating what the children were eating, and I did not exclude, in final resort, a judge dutifully withdrawing a child at risk from parental authority…
But then there occurred to me a different aspect of reality. Ernst Jünger wrote about total mobilisation; now we seem to be under total control, a control even of trifles. (It is no accident that the term, “Totalitarianism”, comes from “total”.)
Due to combined insecurity, legalism and conformity, many persons these days share this frame of mind, which has pervaded even lower-level authorities and the population as a whole.
The EU (although we must admit that it is not only the EU) has brought us to these ridiculous extremes.
This illustrates what Brussels and the Spanish State are all about: unable to prevent the Barcelona bombing in spite of its similarity to that of Nice one year before, incapable of dealing with global warming or immigration —and not even with the more modest and mundane Catalan issue—, they are nevertheless desperate to control what we eat at home.
Is there no one left with a minimum of common sense, one wonders? Technocracy has recently proven, most clearly in Southern Europe, its incapacity to deal with serious problems in parallel with a real capacity to inflict pain. No doubt there exist dozens of scientific studies demonstrating the perversity of beef minced with ham, its incompatibility with the single market, and so on, and no doubt Brussels could bury me under those reports if she so wished.
I am sorry, but I shall not read them.
I should like rather to go to Brussels in order to ask the people at the Commission: “Given the indisputable fact that the EU these days is wandering aimlessly, why you persist in obsessive micromanagement? Are you aware of the stifling social and personal control it implies?”
Should their answer be “No”, I should dare to suggest disobeying such illiberal regulations, because the overheard private conversation mentioned at the beginning of this article, an entirely real one, seems rather like a narration of clandestinity in the Spain of 1940 or the Prague of 1968 — and all this hullabaloo over a handful of home-made meatballs.
Please do not suppose that the law-abiding, poster-child hardly exists in real life: later on, the boy who accompanied the customer, about six years old, confessed, I suppose to relieve the uneasiness of a childish, yet scrupulous, conscience:
“Hi, Mum — the car of my friend X has plenty of chocolate dough-nuts, and his parents allow him to eat things containing palm oil — and I ate some”.
It seemed a piece of postmodern moral theology, perhaps the nearest thing to a postmodern sin.
Dear European and national rulers, if you cannot be trusted to carry out the most basic political tasks, please keep clear of the ordinary matters that matter to ordinary people.
Authorities incapable of lowering appalling unemployment figures in Spain and Greece, and unable to fulfil the most elementary task that justifies the existence of a public power — protecting the body politic — lack moral authority to interfere in lives and especially in the consciences of children.
In classical constitutionalism people mistrusted power; now, power, no matter how corrupt and inept, mistrusts us.
Let ordinary people not become complicit in such penetration of the fabric of civil society, in such illiberal mistrust of the individual.
These turn us into spies on one other (in the case mentioned, admittedly, the grocery assistant did not actually call the police). How can social capital thrive if one cannot talk unguardedly to family and neighbours about so trivial and ordinary a matter as the contents of minced beef?
Rulers who fail to defend us from terrorism, climate change or bankers’ rapacity should refrain from seeking to control how people kill Asian wasps or keep egg-laying hens (for the benefit of the interested: see the order of the German Constitutional Court of 2 October 2010 declaring certain statutory provisions on the keeping of laying hens unconstitutional).
Let us be free at least in small matters; let people make homemade eau de vie and mince such meat as they please.
Antonio-Carlos Pereira Menaut is Professor of Spanish and EU Constitutional Law & Jean Monnet Chairholder (1999) at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia).