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Why Brussels Wants to Clear the Herbalists' Shelves
By Daniel Hannan

You may be one of the 20 million people in this country who, at one time or another, have taken a natural remedy. There is even a fair chance that you are one of the two million who regularly buy herbal medicines.

If so, your life is about to become a lot more complicated. Two directives are clanking their way through the EU machine which, taken together, will outlaw a good deal of what you are doing.

The Food Supplements Directive has passed through all its Brussels stages - although not without fierce opposition from Conservative MEPs - and is now awaiting implementation into British law.

It will ban hundreds of vitamin and mineral products, and restrict the dosage of others. The Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive is scheduled to become law in 18 months' time. It will affect thousands of natural medicines.

The combined result of these two laws will be to prohibit many substances that have been on the market for years without the slightest evidence that they are deleterious to our health. Natural remedies will be reclassified as medicines, making them subject to a rigorous testing regime.

It is not only each substance that must be tested, but every single product. In other words, if a herbalist wants to sell echinacea, it will not be enough to prove that echinacea is safe. He - or, more often, she - will also be required to submit her particular version of it, at a cost of several thousand pounds.

Thousands of products will be driven off the market. The bigger firms will be all right: some form of St John's wort will still be available at Boots. But many smaller herbalists, unable to meet the compliance costs, will be driven out of business.

Even by the EU's standards, the criminalisation of an activity engaged in by millions of consumers may seem rather heavy-handed. To grasp why it is happening, you need to understand a little about the Brussels system.

MEPs are rarely happier than when telling others what to do. In the three years since I was elected, we have restricted the amount of time you can spend on a tractor, demanded that you wear ear plugs in noisy places, and laid down an approved way of holding ladders against walls. The idea that herbal medicine is "unregulated" is, to most Euro-MPs, simply a loophole that needs closing.

This is not because of any suggestion that the supplements in question pose a health risk. Rather, the EU is following what it calls "the precautionary principle".

At the beginning of the 19th century, it was widely believed that the noise of a passing train would cause pregnant women to miscarry. Had we applied the precautionary principle, we would never have laid a single inch of track. After all, the rail operators of the day couldn't prove that they wouldn't cause miscarriages, any more than today's health stores can prove that their wares are not poisonous.

Most of the products in question have been used in parts of the world for hundreds of years without evidence of harmful side effects. One of the threatened substances, for example, is cat's claw, which is traditionally prescribed in my native Peru as a cure for inflammation and rheumatism. If it were dangerous, Peruvians would surely have noticed by now.

There is more to this, though, than an addiction to regulation. Whenever you see an apparently insane Brussels directive, ask yourself: cui bono? Someone, somewhere, stands to gain. Thus, the attempt to ban the British double-decker was largely driven by a handful of continental bus manufacturers who had their eye on our lucrative export market. The campaign against British lettuce was enthusiastically supported by Spanish lettuce growers.

And so it is with the directives on herbal medicines, which will allow the large pharmaceutical corporations to squeeze out their smaller competitors. These firms, like other multi-nationals, have discovered that Brussels is a lobbyist's paradise. Because the people who pass the laws are almost untouched by public opinion, measures can be pushed through which would never withstand the scrutiny of a democratic national parliament.

The EU is thus, in many ways, the opposite of a common market. The essence of a market is mutual product recognition. In other words, if a widget is sold freely in Britain, it ought to be available in Germany, and vice versa.

Instead, more often than not, the EU's approach is to lay down highly prescriptive rules on the size, shape and contents of widgets, which can have the effect of banning products which were never intended for export in the first place. And you'd be surprised by how often those standards turn out to have been proposed by some European widget manufacturer who happened to meet all the specifications anyway.

For what it's worth, I am rather sceptical about most herbal remedies - although my wife, a regular user, has converted me to echinacea. But that is not the point.

The essence of liberty, and the focus of this newspaper's Free Country campaign, is that we stand up for rights which we do not ourselves want to exercise. Even if you have never been inside a health store before, go into one now and sign the petition on the counter. This is not about science; it's about freedom.

Conversely, if you are a regular buyer of natural remedies, but have never before campaigned against an EU measure, try extrapolating from this experience.

You are now being treated as fishermen, art dealers, abattoir workers, hauliers and countless other victims of EU meddling have been treated before. It is not just this law that is wrong; it is the system that spawned it.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP for south-east England
Daily Telegraph, 3rd September 2002