Here We Go Again

The Financial Times is running this story this morning:

Britain is coming under pressure from the European Commission to say when it will honour its 25-year-old promise to go fully metric, converting miles to kilometres and pints to litres.G?nter Verheugen, EU enterprise commissioner, says he wants clarity on the issue, claiming he is facing pressure from British pro-metric campaigners to act.

Isn’t this really the kind of silly non-issue the EU could safely live without? UK consumers and citizens have every right to purchase their beer in pints or measure their journeys in miles if they chose so to do. Trying to force them to change is not non-intrusive government. And the argument about pressure from the ‘pro-metric’ lobby is a canard: if they want to lobby, they should lobby inside the UK, and try and convince public opinion there, while Verheugen should have the strength of character to tell them to get lost in the meantime.

Incidentally, on this issue I have no strong feelings personally, since frankly my dear I couldn’t give a damn.

Update, here’s another example:

The decision by the Netherlands to lock up 5.5m free-range birds as a precaution against the spread of avian flu may have breached European Union rules, it was claimed on Friday. The European Commission said its lawyers were studying whether the unilateral action was legal, since animal health is an EU matter and the Dutch action was taken before EU animal health experts had co-ordinated their response. Commission lawyers are also considering how long Dutch free-range egg producers should be allowed to market their products as such, following the decision to confine all poultry to sheds last week.

It seems little has been learned from the referendum ‘sebacks’. What we are in danger of creating is an intransigent’s paradise. If the Dutch government can’t take the measures it sees fit to protect its citizens because it’s against the rules then it’s time to ammend the rules in question and not castigate the government of the Netherlands. This is the case whether or not it could be claimed that the government have ‘overreacted’.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

30 thoughts on “Here We Go Again

  1. “Isn?t this really the kind of silly non-issue the EU could safely live without?”


  2. The British government has made a legally binding commitment to move to metric measurements, and this is really just the Commission trying to make it stick to that.

    This talk of the ‘love of imperial measurements’ is really nonsense. Every time we’ve changed over there’s been a big fuss, then everyone accepts the new measures. Who now yearns for pounds, shillings and pence?

  3. The Dutch gouvernment can take all the precautions it wants. The issue is wether the eggs of chickens that are locked up can still be sold as free-range eggs. If not, the farmers will loose a lot of money because the government forces them to lock the birds up (we have bad memories of poultry diseases). If the EU agrees that under these circumstances the more biological farmers can still sell their eggs as free-range (= more expensive) there is no problem.

  4. “The British government has made a legally binding commitment”

    Oh, I think there’s no doubt about this Matthew. The issue is whether it is really important to be so legalistic with this kind of thing. The issue is that the EU Commission doesn’t seem to know how to ‘bend with the wind’ when there is no real issue of principle involved. If we say we want a Europe that is nearer to the `people’ this kind of thing shouldn’t be an issue. In other words ammend the law, and don’t introduce binding law into things like choice of units of measure. In the information age conversion can be automatic.

    “This talk of the ‘love of imperial measurements’ is really nonsense.”

    Yes, but again this isn’t the issue, it’s whether people feel it to be a problem or not. Who are you and I to tell them their feelings are nonesense. Whatsmore maybe you do underestimate the degree of difficulty that older people can have with this. And if there is no necessity to change, why change?

    And finally, remember that some people are just about to want to change the conditions which were offered to Turkey to begin negotiations. ie some people really are prepared to move the goal posts when it suits them. And even here, I would agree, that after the referendum results we need to be more flexible. If a majority of EU voters forcefully don’t want Turkey as a member I don’t think it can be foisted on them, even though I favour it personally.

  5. “The issue is wether the eggs of chickens that are locked up can still be sold as free-range eggs.”

    Thanks, possibly that is the case, maybe I didn’t put this very well, although in fairness the error seems to be with the FT. The free-range egg problem results from the decision though. The FT suggests that there is a secondary (or maybe its even primary) issue of EU animal health expert coordination and Dutch ‘jumping the gun’.

    This sort of question doesn’t only exist at EU level, in any federal state you have these issues about competences. Take fires in Spain. Central government claims it has authority in all sorts of areas, but no-one will criticise a regional government if it calls a ‘red alert’ before central government agrees, although the reverse might not hold.

    “If the EU agrees that under these circumstances the more biological farmers can still sell their eggs as free-range”

    Yes, this is why I grouped these two issues together, since what is needed here is a little flexibility. It is ‘spirit of the law’ not ‘letter of the law stuff’. I think if the farmers have to keep their hens in-doors until the scare passes they should be allowed to continue to use the category name.

    What we need is an administration which can respond to these issues and respond quickly. Of course that may be a pipe dream :).

  6. It isn’t easy to convert between units. Every machine part is designed on the basis of units, and they aren’t precisely interchangeable, because the different unit systems don’t match up. Unit conversion historically has been a huge impediment to a common market. That’s why the Zollverein specifically called for a unification of weights and measures.

    There are real costs involved in keeping multiple unit systems around, and they can’t just be wished away with “the information age”. We can have an argument about whether these are worth the cost or not, but it seems stupid to stay in the halfway house Britain does, where some units are metric and some imperial.

  7. “but it seems stupid to stay in the halfway house Britain does, where some units are metric and some imperial.”

    Don’t put it like that Hektor, or there’ll be a big push to go back :).

    Incidentally Matthew:

    “Who now yearns for pounds, shillings and pence?”

    Well these no, but Lira? Part of the political manipulation behind the bring back the lira call is due to the fact that a lot of people (you’d be surprised just hopw many) still haven’t learnt to think in the new money. Its stillvery often here in Spain that I find people using euros up to say 50 euros, and pessetas on upwards, for mental calculations and illustrative purposes of course.

  8. “Who now yearns for pounds, shillings and pence?”

    That is a totally puerile question, if I may say so.

    How does the question of whether it would be worth reverting to pre-decimal coinage in Britain affect the issue of whether the horrendous costs and upheaval of changing all the road signs, speed limits and road maps in Britain would be compensated by the accruing benefits of EU harmonisation?

    I fear all this is being unnecessarily dredged up because of the EU Commission’s recurring mania for harmonisation and because some Commissioners and their staff evidently have too little work to do to justify their status and pay.

  9. Ireland changed from miles to kilometres a few years back, and as far as I can tell it was not the End of Irish Civilisation As We Know It.

    If there’s a suitably distant deadline (say seven to ten years) so there’s not a huge up-front cost, I think it’s a sensible idea. And probably one that needs a bit of a push from the EU, because no British politician would bother with it themselves.

  10. “and as far as I can tell it was not the End of Irish Civilisation As We Know It.”

    I’m sure it wasn’t Anthony, I’m sure it wasn’t. But this isn’t really the point here. The issue is that we are trying to get consensus on an EU constitution treaty. In France voters rejected the treaty because, among other things, they weren’t happy with Turkish membership, Dutch voters were worried about, among other things, the euro. Now British voters fret about miles and pints as they symbolise what Bob terms the drive to harmonisation.

    And the question I am asking is wouldn’t it be more sensible to let the British stay with miles and pints if they want (personally in Spain I have been living with litres and Km for years) and get on with trying to thrash out an acceptable basis for the constitution? This is the pressing problem.

    The Brits may be eccentric, they are probably proud of it, but why not leave them be on this? Why does difference irritate so much, this is my question.

    I am reminded of the language debate here in Spain, with the Spanish trying to persuade the Catalans that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke Spanish. These things are symbols and they are about identity, that is why we should be sensitive.

  11. “The Brits may be eccentric, they are probably proud of it, but why not leave them be on this? Why does difference irritate so much, this is my question.”

    Exactly. I think our prevailing view in Britain is that the accruing benefits of converting from miles to Km are just not worth the costs. Comparisons with Ireland changing over are besides the point: we have far more miles of highways in Britain on which it will be necessary to change road signs and a much greater population density – only the Netherlands and Belgium have higher population densities in Europe – and the density of road signs is probably comparable.

    What I thinks does most to arouse Eurosceptic sentiments in Britain is a continuing impression of an obsessive intent to harmonise among some in mainland Europe.

    The prevailing view in Britain tends to be more pragmatic and therefore questions whether the benefits of applying any particular harmonisation proposal are worth the inevitable costs and upheavals.

    It does not help when it is suggested – as it often has been in my experience – that only those suffering senility are resisting change. How well I recall that claim being made c. 1999 about those of us who then resisted Britain making a commitment to join the Euro. In the light of the subsequent comparative economic performance of the Eurozone, it is most amusing now to reflect on how wise for Britain to remain outside.

  12. Who is G?nter Verheugen?

    I’m sure he has good reason to worry about whether Britain goes metric or not, but why is he the voice of the Commission? Or is it that the Commission has no actual voice and whoever speaks up is taken to be the voice of the Commission?

    I don’t think the problem is that the Commission is pushing a “silly non-issue”, rather that the Commission simply isn’t a unitary body.

  13. “Who is G?nter Verheugen?”

    G?nter Verheugen is EU enterprise commissioner and is actually vice-president of the EU Comission. Kind of surprising isn’t it then that he’s not exactly a household name. You can find his webpage here:

    He is handling this since it is part of his brief, so I think you are perhaps a little unfair here. Obviously the Commissioners have in general a ‘presentation problem’ and this is one of the issues.

    On his page he has this (which made me chuckle):

    Tired of being tied up in red tape?

    Unnecessary rules and red tape stand in the way of sustainable growth, deter business investment and hinder job creation. The European Commission has launched a public online consultation to ask businesses how they feel the business environment in the EU can be improved and the administrative burden reduced.

    Precisely G?nter, precisely.

  14. Reading Tim Worstall this morning I find another example:

    Now Tim is interesting since he more or less reflects the views of educated Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail readers. Personally I’ve never been able to stomach either of these newspapers, they are just not in sync with my mindset, a bit like chosing to read the Washington Times over Wapo, I suppose. But he is interesting because millions of people in the UK think like he does, and on the question of subsidiarity, and not harmonising where you don’t need to harmonise, they have a strong point.

    The case in question is a small primary school in Perthshire (Scotland) where they are not connected to the mains water supply. They have been drinking spring water for generations, but spring water doesn’t conform to the environmentally harmonised EU water regulations, so they are going to have to build a pipeline at a cost of approximately one million pounds.

    Now I do have an opinion on this, since I personally *am* a defender of spring water, and I find the way public authorities have expressly gone round and closed local springs here in Spain to be monstrous. I hate drinking water which tastes of chlorine. Normally I leave an open jug of water to allow the chlorine to evaporate (I’m not convinced that buying bottled water is worth the effort since there are quality issues there too).

    Before all this open springs were controlled and classified as drinkable or not drinkable, and I really don’t understand the change.

    At the end of the day I don’t agree with Tim at all. I would hope for a better and brighter EU future where the issue of subsidiarity was taken seriously, and stupid regulations were not enforced ‘willy-nilly’.

    I think the problem is that many people aren’t thinking strategically. It is important if you want a strong united Europe with coherent foreign and defence policies to get the UK fully on board. And you are never going to get them on board if you keep getting bogged down with issues like these.

    Let them drink their pints, god damn it!

  15. Just a silly question out of curiosity:

    What are the costs?

    Heineken or Carlsberg can sell 50-liter kegs to pubs which then sell pints of draught without any trouble. Who cares?

    But Spanish concentrated orange juice? Is that sold in the supermarket in litres or in pints and gallons? Is sugar sold in metric or imperial pounds?

    Surely there is some extra cost involved for producers selling both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and surely some smart person has tried to calculate that cost. So are real costs involved or is the issue purely symbolical?

    @ Bob B – Having the same coin and interest rate does not mean you have the same growth rate. Silicon Valley and rural Alabama both use the dollar.

  16. “Precisely”

    Ordinary, normal folks are only just beginning to appreciate the highly developed arts of political spin.

    We can lean from Tony Blair’s government an outstanding model of what can be achieved in duping electorates. While piling on new regulations and tax systems on business costing billions – which customers at home and abroad of surviving businesses will ultimately have to pay for – convene a prime ministerial (or EU Commission) press conference with much fanfare to parade a bright new flagship policy for “cutting red-tape” by weeding out regulations past their sales date and announce umpteen new important committees to do the job.

    Business organisations can be guaranteed to mostly applaud the announcement. Journalists routinely critical of the government (or Commission) can go on record to congratulate themselves on their astute op-ed campaigns. The issue at stake will then go quiet for a long while so the many new committees have appropriate space to do their challenging work.

    Meanwhile, all the recently introduced regulations will stay in place. Nothing much will change. In due course, government departments (and EU Commission directorates) will rediscover files in bottom draws of archaic regulations up for sacrifice. In extreme circumstances, a few sensitive options may get pulled out and leaked with orchestrated howls of anguish from suitably prompted and outraged lobby groups.

    As a classic parallel example, take the MFA – the Multifibre Agreement – an array of import controls originally introduced 30 (thirty) years ago to give the European (and US) textile and clothing industries time to adjust to the then emerging threat of low-cost imports from industrialising economies.

    At the start of 2005, the MFA was “finally” phased out. Of course, there were predictable howls of anguish from the European (and US) textile and clothing industries demanding extra time to adjust to the threat of low-cost imports from industrialising economies. After 30 years of adjustment time.

    The EU Commission instantly brought in a spate of controls on textile and clothing imports in early summer, proclaimed the new trade barriers as a “win-win” deal and the Commissioner duly went on his summer holidays. No surprise there – the EU Commissioner for trade used to be one of Tony Blair’s chief spinners in opposition.

    Reinvigorated by holidays, EU Commissioners returned and starting looking for work. Ah! someone noticed that we are still using miles

    instead of Km in Britain even if to no observable ill-effects. But then EU harmonistaion can be paraded as a cause celebre if it can be cloaked as metrification. Vive metrification.

    Of course, the benefits from making the switch over from miles to Km are rather minor whereas the costs are predictable and huge but what the hell and it will all help to divert popular attention from the farce over the MFA.

    C’est la vie.

  17. Of course, the benefits from making the switch over from miles to Km are rather minor whereas the costs are predictable and huge

    Are products labelled in SI-units in the UK?

  18. “No surprise there – the EU Commissioner for trade used to be one of Tony Blair’s chief spinners in opposition.”

    Well looking at the Chinese texile mess I’m rapidly coming round to your point of view on Mandelson Bob :). Shame though, it would be so nice if the world was a different place.

    “Surely there is some extra cost involved for producers selling both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and surely some smart person has tried to calculate that cost.”

    Well of course there are costs, but the market rules doesn’t it. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t *illegal* to market in metric quantities, and companies offering cheaper prices may be able to tempt customers, but like with the Free Range egg topic, if consumers are willing to pay for products with a particular label, who are companies to disagree with them.

    Language labelling and publicity would be another of these ‘symbolic’ questions, should for eg Flemish speakers in Belgium be able to buy products labelled and advertised in their own language? Not *have to*, but *be able to*, or should French speaking harmonistation rule this out, because everyone can, of course, understand French. Street names and town signs then become another of these issues. The list is endless, and if you don’t get it clear from the start that you intervene in identity issues the minimum possible, well, you’re going to have a revolt on your hands sooner or later.

  19. OK, I’ve got it, the ultimate standardisation. Lets introduce Esperanto as the exclusive community language – anything else would be unfair, now wouldn’t it?

    Everyone now has a five year transition period to learn. Courses and exam-based qualifications will be only available via our *recommended* network of centres. All posts in government agencies across the Union will only be available to those who have the appropriate level (on an A to E scale), and all complaints about commission behaviour (on whatever topic) must be submitted in writing in Esperanto (2004b standardised version) to be considered.

    Good, now we can all break for coffee.

    Commission-think. Isn’t this how it works? Or am I missing something?

  20. “I would hope for a better and brighter EU future where the issue of subsidiarity was taken seriously, and stupid regulations were not enforced ‘willy-nilly’.”

    Stupid regulations being enforced willy-nilly is what the EU does. You either celebrate it, because they deal with externalities however heavy-handedly, or reject it, but hoping for a better and brighter EU where subsidiarity is taken seriously is a fool’s dream.

  21. “but hoping for a better and brighter EU where subsidiarity is taken seriously is a fool’s dream.”

    Well, what was it the King of Rock’n Roll said: only fools fall in love. More fool me then. I am a dreamer, I own up to it, and I think using a Darwinian argument, if some of us don’t specialise in it then collectively we’re doomed. But… one more time I’m in the middle, pleasing it seems neither one side nor the other.

  22. SI-units – metrication to most normal folks – applies in Britain’s education system, much media reporting and most kinds of commercial transactions with only a few specified exemptions such as “pints” of beer and milk, as well as miles instead of Km for road signs and maps and traffic speed limits.

    Most folks here have little problem dealing concurrently with linear measurements in both miles and metres, perhaps because metres are almost the same length as our historic yards, which go back to the extent of the arm of Henry I in 1101, a tad before France imposed metrication, the Code Napoleon and right-hand drive on the roads as part of the Continental System for Europe.

    Things would likely have taken the same modernisation route here too but Napoleon’s invasion plans didn’t work out, mostly because the battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) went the wrong way. This year, we are celebrating the bicentenary of Trafalgar and when I last looked, Nelson’s column was still in Trafalgar Square in London and we’ve not yet renamed Waterloo Station or taken down the Wellington memorial in Hyde Park either. As best I can tell, their respective tombs, buried deep in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, remain undisturbed. For the rest, many of us already know that 1 Km = (5/8) miles.

    Shoes and shirts retail in both British and continental sizes. Having just got a somewhat aged PC at home to play DVD videos – since I’ve no other DVD player – I’ve recently been watching with much delight the video of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on Tolkein’s books, and was greatly reassured to note that feet and inches still prevail in the Shire, where the esteemed Hobbits dwell, as also with Americans and in other remote civilisations with antediluvian practices of mensuration. Doubtless, as EU metrication imperatives bind deeply, even Hobbits will have to abandon ancient rights and practices and the videos will all have to be officially pulped for promoting atavistic practices. Meanwhile, Frodo lives on. The EU Commission hasn’t yet gained possession of the one ring to rule them all.

  23. “The EU Commission hasn’t yet gained possession of the one ring to rule them all”.

    Well certainly if you’re talking about ECB interest rate policy here they haven’t, the various national economies still continue to be decidedly ‘unruly’ :).

  24. Fair point and the Eurozone’s solemn Stability and Growth Pact of 1997 turns out to have been more farce than reality.

    With our long history and continuously evolving constitution, how do they expect us to take them seriously?

  25. Aren’t you making a fuss of something that’s not worth it? Every country (or even region) used in the past to have their own crap units of length, land area and weight and the switch to metric system brought a welcome standardisation which has been very useful for scientific, commercial and trade matters.

    I mean, just have a look at this:

    12 lines = 1 inch
    12 inches = 1 foot
    3 feet = 1 yard
    1760 yards = 1 mile

    16 dram = 1 oz
    16 oz = 1 lb
    14 lb = 1 st

    20 fl.oz = 1 pint
    8 pints = 1 gallon

    It’s just a joke. How can you defend such an archaic and haphazard system? Who’s able to mentally convert miles to yards? or square inches to pints? The beauty of the metric system is that all the fundamental units are defined rationally and are related to each other in a rational fashion, ie the liter is the volume of one cubic decimeter, the kilogram the weight of a liter of pure water, etc.

    Blaming the death of the imperial measurements on the EU is easy but the system would have vanished sooner or later even without the EU. British people should on the contrary be thankful for the EU to be once again a handy scapegoat.

  26. Well, I’ve made a little research on the internet and it appears that in Britain in the past:

    – Measures varied by region (a London pound was different from a Newcastle pound)
    – Measures varied by object measured (a gallon of beer was different from a gallon of wine)
    – Measures varied by trade or context (the nautical mile was different from the geographical mile)
    – Measures varied by the origin of the measure (Britain used at least three different sets of measures: avoirdupois, troy and apothecary)
    – Measures changed over time (The pint of 1850 was different from the pint of 1800)

    It’s obvious the British central government once again shoved standardisation down people’s throat, another proof of their “recurring mania for harmonisation and because some MP and their staff evidently had too little work to do to justify their status and pay”.

    Having a gallon of beer different from a gallon of wine was such a brilliant idea I cannot understand why that was scrapped.

    “What I think does most to arouse anti-government sentiments in Britain is a continuing impression of an obsessive intent to harmonise matters throughout the country”. I’m sure people from Newcastle still yearn for their old own pound 🙁
    “Bring it back, London won’t tell us what to do!”

  27. I don’t know the details on animal health issues, but certainly member states are permitted to take independent action to protect human health and are not bound by a need for collective action.

    Depending on what they did, they would have to explain why they took what action they did (eg if this directly contravened single market rules) and to show it was proportional.

    The problem, as an early comment pointed out, may relate to the question of accurate labelling of eggs, given that in principle these might go anywhere in the EU.

  28. Edward,
    following Ester Boserup i would say that “red tape” is that what leads to more productivity and not less.
    It decreases transaction costs.

  29. “following Ester Boserup”

    Well I’m not sure about the validity of the ‘transaction costs’ argument, but your mention of Ester Boserup does point to one good defence of red tape I hadn’t thought of: giving entrepreneurs a little adversity to overcome may make them more imaginative and creative in their needs to get round it (creative accounting and all that). Whether this argument is relevant or not I have no idea, as I doubt anyone has actually carried out a study to look explicitly at this (ie how much innovative change has been produced by the need to get round some stupid rule or other, although in some senses the whole online music file swapping phenomenon could be seen as an attempt to get round a rigid copyright law and an oligopolistic – but transactionally simple – cd pricing policy by the music majors, so there would be material).

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