Brussels Behind the Scenes: Courting approval

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Courting approval

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

Weekly analysis and untold stories

With SAM MORGAN

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Courting approval

Europe’s top court is tasked with making sure that EU law is applied correctly across the bloc’s 27 member states and, in some cases, beyond its borders. Just before the ECJ judges went on break this week, they unloaded some rulings that are worth examining. 

The US supreme court has made headlines lately for undermining everything from the rights of indigenous people and women to environmental protection measures.

Across the Atlantic, where the European Court of Justice is the closest equivalent the EU has to SCOTUS, rulings are normally far less politicised and range from the monumentally important to the ludicrously banal.

Starting with the latter, as they are far more fun, this week the court closed the lid on a long-lasting legal case between the European Commission – supported by Greece and Cyprus – and Denmark.

The issue at stake? Cheese.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


That’s right, some of the top judicial minds in the world have had to decide whether it is illegal for Danish cheesemakers to market some of their wares as ‘feta’, the salty ‘white gold’ that is synonymous with Greek cuisine.

Denmark’s turophiles insisted that it was fine to call their products feta as the cheeses were intended for export to non-EU countries, where protected food norms do not have much weight as within the bloc.

According to the EU’s regime of safeguards that prevent just anyone from making prosecco, Roquefort cheese or thousands of other specialised products wherever and however they like, feta has to be made a certain way and, more importantly, in a certain place.

Greece has been fighting the feta fight for years, as has Cyprus in the halloumi corner, while Italy has waged a cold war against the Croatian makers of ‘prošek’, a different kind of wine altogether to prosecco, which has proved to be a more complicated case.

Ultimately, the ECJ judges ruled that Denmark’s logic was bogus and breaches EU law. Whether this means Danish companies will have to rebrand their wares completely or go for something like ‘fæta’, remains to be seen.

It is in any case another legal precedent that strengthens the standing of producers across Europe that want to guard their products against mass production. Hopefully that means that food quality will remain high too.

Price is maybe a different issue…

Sour grapes, crushed

Another example of EU farce occurred a couple of years ago when the European Medicines Agency moved from London after the UK voted collectively to Brexit itself into oblivion. A bidding process was launched to find a new host city.

In initial scenes that resembled the Eurovision song contest to an extent, EU member states cast their lots and finally whittled it down to two candidates: Amsterdam and Milan. After another round of voting, the score was still tied.

Italy beat the Soviet Union at the 1968 European football championships thanks to a coin toss, as this was before the introduction of penalty shootouts. They then went on to win the entire tournament.

But in late 2017, the Italians could not repeat the feat when officials had to resort to drawing a name out of a hat. Amsterdam got the luck as the EMA relocated to the Dutch city, despite Milan placing higher in the previous rounds of voting before the final tiebreaker.

Italy cried foul and lodged a complaint at the ECJ, claiming that it was not fair or legal for governments to decide on the new host city among themselves and that the European Parliament had essentially been sidelined by the process.

EU agencies are valuable assets. They can be prestigious feathers in the caps of member states and are staffed with an often sizeable cohort of well-paid officials who need accommodation and shops to spend their salaries in.

At one point it was even suggested that the EMA be given to Strasbourg in exchange for giving up its divisive Parliament hosting duties. So it was no surprise that Milan was furious to have missed out in such ludicrous fashion.

But the ECJ found no fault in the way Amsterdam emerged victorious and the judges even made the point in their ruling that MEPs were free to oppose the decision if they objected to the outcome. Lawmakers did not though, so that was that.

Defeat devices, defeated

Another case that wrapped up just before the summer break also has a farcical quality to it but in a different way to cheese wars and a major economic decision left up to the vagaries of chance and fate.

Yet another Dieselgate case hit the ECJ docket this week, in which a group of Austrian motorists is demanding that Volkswagen annul the purchases of cars that were sold during a certain period, as the hangover of the infamous emissions test-cheating scandal continues.

The case centres on so-called defeat devices and software, which would change certain aspects of a vehicle’s performance based on a number of parameters. In this case, the outside temperature.

It seems like an open and shut case: VW installed software which would change the emissions performance of some of its cars depending on outside conditions, in a bid to essentially game EU pollution standards and tests.

The judges saw it that way too and decided that of course that type of software should be classed as a defeat device and is therefore illegal. Their ruling suggests that motorists affected by the issue may be eligible for a refund. Compensation may follow too.

So the farcical element of this is that here we are, seven years on from when the Dieselgate scandal first broke and much longer since VW started breaking the rules, still gumming up the EU’s top court with cases that are so clearly a waste of judiciary time.

Emissions tests were cheated and motorists were sold vehicles in bad faith. The likes of VW have tried to banish the spectre of Dieselgate by embracing e-mobility more enthusiastically than most but this kind of legal action undoes a lot of that penance.

It stinks of a wealthy company trying to wriggle out of its financial responsibilities after being caught red-handed with its hand in the cookie jar. Judges don’t have time to waste on this, they have more cheese cases to deliberate on.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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