Will Toilet Rules Prove EU's Waterloo?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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One reason parties hostile to the European Union's integration will do well in next year's election to the European Parliament is that the bloc's central bureaucracy is so wasteful and intrusive. This year, for example, it produced more than 100 pages of research and specifications to standardize toilet flushes.

According to the Times of London, the research cost 89,300 euros ($122,000). Working groups established that Germany has the most toilets, with 69 million of them. It is followed by the U.K. and, somewhat surprisingly, Spain, which, although 25 percent less populous, also has about 35 million toilets. A domestic toilet's average life span was found to be 12.5 years. Who knew?

The geographical distribution of the EU's 44 million men's urinals was also painstakingly researched, and the 3 percent market share of flushing squat toilets was duly noted.

A domestic loo, as the British like to call their toilets, is flushed 7.75 times per day, according to the European Commission's Joint Research Center. A lot of water goes down the drain, which is what led the EU to offer its members guidance on toilets. Once a so-called Ecolabel is adopted to grace approved loos, government procurement agencies and consumers will be encouraged to buy them over those that don't meet the flushing standard.

In practical terms, that would mean limiting cistern capacity to five liters (1.3 gallons) for toilets and one liter for urinals. Using six liters per flush, as the current U.K. standard allows, is considered wasteful. Britons -- who invented the flush toilet to supersede the chamber pot in late 16th century -- are the second most profligate flushers in Europe, after the residents of Luxembourg. Toilets account for 30 percent of their daily water consumption.

It was only to be expected that the famously Euroskeptic U.K. media would ridicule the new "Euroflush" standard. Comments on the Times article make for entertaining reading: "Some evacuations need a lot of water," said one, "Dunkirk is a case in point" -- a reference to the rescue of fleeing Allied troops from the beaches of France in 1940.

Finns, the most economical flushers in Europe, who only send 14 percent of their daily water quota down the toilet, kept silent on the Euroflush issue. That doesn't mean they approve, though. According to a 2013 Eurobarometer poll, 79 percent of Europeans believe the EU generates too much red tape.

The toilet project could be laughed off as a relatively inexpensive extravagance that might help EU members save water, money and the environment. Indeed, the EU's 1992 energy ratings system for household appliances is generally considered a success. It set a single standard for "white goods" manufacturers to meet in Europe and enabled consumers to use their wallets to force improvements in energy efficiency.

Yet public skepticism is driven by a general picture of European overregulation so rampant that it bothers even European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. On Oct. 2, the commission reported that it had reviewed all existing and proposed European regulations. It found that although 5,590 unnecessary legal acts have been repealed since 2005, more directives and initiatives needed to be taken off the books. These included an infamous proposal that hairdressers should be banned from wearing high heels at work -- for their own good, of course.

Corrects location of Dunkirk evacuation in 6th paragraph

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net