Today sees the 25th anniversary of EEC Regulation No 1677/88, a piece of European legislation that has gone down in infamy for banning bent cucumbers and which was the precursor to the equally infamous ban on bent bananas. Such regulations have been used as a stick with which to beat Eurocrats ever since.
Regulation No 1677/88 specified that cucumbers must be "reasonably well shaped and practically straight" with a maximum height of the arc being "10 mm per 10 cm of the length of cucumber". If you can bear to read the entire list of rules, you will see that the EU's reputation for bureaucratic micromanagement is well deserved. As Dan Hannan and others have pointed out, it is not a myth.
Legislation of this sort has become an embarrassment to Brussels and, in recent years, the EU has sought to overturn some of the more absurd examples in an attempt to regain its credibility. The desire to meddle runs deep, however, as the recent farce (and U-turn) on olive oil bottles demonstrated. The EU is a Leviathan with too many staff and too much time on its hands. Endless bureaucracy is the result. It simply cannot help itself.
Much of the discussion about the forthcoming Tobacco Products Directive has focused on the EU's intention to kill off the emerging e-cigarette industry, as well as its failure to re-legalise snus. These failings are so glaring that the petty rule-making that dominates its text has been overlooked, but they are worth mentioning.
For example, the Commission wants to ban cigarette packs which are 54 mm wide, but will allow packs that are 55 mm wide (and only 55 mm wide). It will allow cigarettes to be sold if they have a diameter of 7.5 mm, but no more and no less than 7.5 mm. Only cigarettes which have a flip top lid will be allowed. Menthol cigarettes will be arbitrarily banned. Cylindrical rolling tobacco tins will be banned, but rectangular pouches will be tolerated. Packs of 20 will be OK, but packs of 19 will be illegal.
Much of this is relatively trivial—laughable, even—but some of it will have a negative impact on consumer choice. The bans on menthol and slims, in particular, will likely create a black market in those products (even Guardian writers have found a ban they don't like in the menthol proposal). But it is the very triviality of the proposals that is the issue. This directive will take several years, countless meetings and huge sums of money to put into place, and for what? Does anyone seriously think that nonsmokers are drawn to cigarettes that have a 7.3 mm diameter? Does even the most deluded anti-smoking crank believe that nonsmokers are strangely repelled by flip-top boxes?
What is the point of any of it? At its worst—and its worst is diabolical—the Tobacco Products Directive will actively encourage smokers to keep smoking by deterring the use of e-cigarettes and snus. At its best, it is merely useless; a feeble assortment of barrel-scraping policies that confirm the worst stereotypes of the European Commission as an obsessive-compulsive institution whose first instinct is to vomit up mindless, petty and ill-considered regulation for no other reason than that it can.