Monday, September 26, 2011

Does harmonization eventually lead to harmony? or Is the freedom of goods any good?


by Alexandra Pölzlbauer

In 2003, the European Union was “threatening to sue a fruit-grower and local landlord at Duernstein in Austria for selling his home-made apricot jam under the label of ‘marmalade’”. It did not entirely match the European Union’s definition of the ingredients that are allowed in marmalade. A controversial debate on Austria’s relationship with the European Union ensued, leading to a set of Austrian German linguistic exemptions guaranteed by the Community. As Greece and Denmark had already applied for their own exemptions in 2001, Austria wanted to preserve its traditional, culturally coined terms in the field of food and nutrition—one of many examples where people express concern with increased harmonization strategies due to the freedom of goods.

The European agreement on the free movement of goods simply means “what is good enough for consumers in one Member State is good enough for consumers across the Community” (Bernd van der Meulen and Menno van der Velde, Food Safety Law in the European Union: An Introduction, The Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2004/2006, 137). But can it be this simple? Following up and asking all European experts on free trade, does it have to be this simple in order to guarantee fruitful exchange of goods?

For my part, I cannot completely share Meulen & Velde’s enthusiasm for the so-called “principle of mutual recognition”, which according to them, constitutes a “giant leap forwards in European law”. However, I do, indeed, fully agree with “Cassis de Dijon” being an extraordinary symbol of the “European understanding of ‘free movement of goods’” (Meulen & Velde, 138). When the German chain of supermarkets Rewe wanted to import Cassis de Dijon, a French fruit liqueur, the German authorities refused to authorize the import. The alcohol content of Cassis de Dijon, containing 20% alcohol instead of at least 25%, was too low. After an evaluation according to the so-called rule of reason, Brussels denied Germany the right to refuse the import of Cassis de Dijon. Consequently, this case became the famous example for the principle of mutual recognition, which basically says that products being good enough for one member state also have to be good enough for every other member state.

The high interdependence in European food law shows a higher developmental stage in common European frameworks that facilitate trade. Naturally, it also poses enormous challenges for national-specific customer expectations, regional traditions and cultural images.

But let’s go back to the concept of freedom that forms the base of this principle and the resulting laws. Provocatively asking: who are the “reasonably intelligent, responsible and capable” consumers whom the European lawyers expect to make “informed choices”? Where do they live? Some of them in Europe, hopefully. But what about children, teenagers, young adults, or mentally disturbed customers who might need a bit of protection in the huge and wild forests of giant supermarkets and grocery stores?

To cut a long story short, it has long been a European problem to rashly imitate American role models. Exaggerated harmonization and an obsession with consumers’ freedom might be one of these mistakes.  Eventually, it leads us back to the old question of how much freedom does an individual nation need on a supranational level. In every case, it is not only economic reasons we should carefully reflect on, but also possible social and societal implications. As Steven Hill puts it, “old Europe actually is very young” and despite all of the similarities in the emergence of the United States of America and the European Union, the geographical, cultural and, most of all, chronological differences are not to be overlooked. Call me a skeptical, freedom-hating, authoritarian Austrian wishing back the glorious old days of the Habsburg empire, but seriously, I doubt the effectiveness of where European food laws are heading towards today.

The EU has to find new and innovative ways of guaranteeing transparency and harmonization without threatening or simply neglecting the countries’ individual patterns. As the US and the EU differ on a grand scale, one should not forget that the EU countries differ too. Nevertheless, these differences are a source of great potential if they are treated seriously. Only then can the movement of goods actually be any good.


Alexandra Pölzlbauer is currently a Ph.D. student/teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL. Before earning an MA from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2011, she completed a “Magisterstudium” (German studies, German as a foreign language, English studies, and History) in Vienna. Among other institutions, Alexandra Pölzlbauer has studied and taught at the Lomonossov University in Moscow, at the University of Burjatia in Ulan-Ude, in the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program, at the University of Business and Economics in Vienna, and in the International Summer Program of the University of Vienna in Salzburg. Her academic interests include migration, multiculturalism and cultural identities in globalized worlds, Austrian and German literature after 1945, as well as creative writing. She has written articles and presented scholarly papers focusing on multilingualism, hybridity and migration literature.

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