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Sunday, 5 October 2014

From Macro Europe to Micro Europe... Why opaque, local legislation and arrangements and narrow-minded local politics are bad for the European development and international cooperation.

They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time
Don't want no short people… 'Round here

Yesterday, I had to think about this wonderful Randy Newman song; allegedly about narrow-minded and envious people, who try to get even with other people all the time.

A few weeks ago , I spent a very enjoyable day in Germany on behalf of my principal, a very large and internationally operating Dutch bank. Testing the latest betaversion of important banking software for large customers and getting acquainted with the people, working at the supplier of this software. As I’m almost fluent in German, like my job and dig most Germans very well, such a visit is a thing which I enjoy very much.

In order to be able to start in time, I entered a hotel in the German city of Essen, at ten o’clock on the evening before. The following day, when a colleague and I wanted to drive to our assignment, I noticed a printed, white paper under my window wiper.

“You have infringed traffic regulation xyz and – as a consequence – you will hear soon from us, through our electronic penalizing system”.

I looked at my parking spot. It looked like a perfectly normal parking spot. There was no traffic sign whatsoever, which prohibited parking at the time. There was no obligation to buy a parking ticket at the time either and my wheels weren’t on the street.

Annoyed, but yet utterly clueless, I went to my assignment with my colleague. And yesterday the inevitable happened: I received a request from Germany (very roughly translated here)…  

Our "Herr Ober City Inspektor" has noticed that you illegally took part in the traffic during 7.39 and 7.42 AM on September so-and-so. Due to your infringement of traffic regulation xyz, you will be penalized with a fine of €XXX.XX (the amount was not filled in yet – EL).  

If you would be so kind to fill in your personal data on the enclosed form and return it to the city office of Essen, we will send you the penalty in due course.

My request for information, annex penalty ticket announcement
from the City of Essen
Data courtesy of: Essen, Germany
Click to enlarge
Normally, when such a thing happens, I curse my heavy right foot (‘controlling the accelerator pedal’) and pay such a penalty with a sigh and/or a swear word. Or I curse myself for missing that ‘friggin’ no-parking sign.

However, in this case I almost exploded and cursed ‘ze Germans’, because it was totally and utterly unclear what I had done wrong in traffic. I parked on the right spot and at a time when parking was still for free. I had not made any traffic rule violations, that I was aware of. And at the time that the violation allegedly took place, I was still in the hotel chewing my breakfast and minding my own business.

I tried to get in touch with the city hall of Essen, but in spite of the fact that a certain “Frau EinZweiDrei” should be present to answer my questions, the telephone rung in vain.

When I complained against a colleague from another company, about my misfortune during “my foreign mission for better banking services”, he stated to me: “Perhaps, Essen is one of those German cities, which require a special environmental ‘green’ entrance badge for cars, before you are allowed to enter the city”

“Sic transit gloria mundi - thus passes the glory of the world“, I thought, but in slightly less ornative language. II had not seen any warning sign while entering the city ring of Essen at 10.00 PM and had not received an advanced warning from the agency that had booked./ reserved the hotel either.

The thought of a €100+ traffic penalty made me sick to the stomach. I had been a sitting duck for an overactive special investigation officer, who recognized his chance to give this “holländische Käsekopf” (i.e. Dutch cheesehead) a fierce penalty for infringing regulations that only he and his city understood and the rest of the world did not. This was one thing that seriously spoilt my day, yesterday.

And today, when by coincidence I had to travel to Germany again, I thought about this ticket… and also about the toll roads that Germany is planning to deploy soon. Toll roads, that should be paid for by foreigners exclusively, as German citizens would get a tax refund for the expenses of their toll ticket. Germany is very much willing to carry through its toll plan, in spite of heavy protests and warnings that the legislation behind it is discriminatory in its foundations.

“The foreigners make heavy use of our roadnet, when they go on vacation, without paying for this usage. We simply can’t afford it anymore to maintain our roadnet, without additional yields from this usage, in order to mitigate the vast expenses”. That is the general philosophy behind this toll plan.

So, when next year the family Labruyère wants to go to Italy and Croatia, like we did this year, we probably have to pay:
  • Either a German toll badge or toll-per-kilometer;
  • An Austrian toll badge;
  • Italian toll per kilometer;
  • A Slovenian toll badge;
  • Croatian toll per kilometer; 
And before you realize it, every darn city and region on the way from ‘a to b’ is introducing its own toll regulations and/or environmentally mandated traffic badges, required for entering the city. It will become one bloody mess!

Truckers and transport companies, who are already obliged to pay toll in Germany, by the way, get crazy from these kinds of micro regulation and legislation everywhere in Europe.

Since the crisis, every local and national government  is looking for loads of tax money to fill up their financial potholes. The solution is always found in the innocent, law-obiding citizen: preferably the citizens of another country and region, because they can’t complain about it during the elections.

When this development continues, Europe will turn into a multi-coloured patchwork of local, regional, national and supra-national legislation, regulations, taxes, tolls and penalties, that simply nobody can grasp anymore. And due to the increasing intertwinedness of traffic penalty collection systems, there is no escape for paying your dues anymore.

“Do you not agree with your penalty and do you think it has been handed out unjustifiedly? That is not our problem!”

The macro Europe – the Europe of supranational cooperation, mutual responsibility, “the strong helping the weak”, international friendship and progress – is slowly replaced by a narrow-minded, micro Europe: a Europe of small, selfish and ultimately powerless, independent regions, which think nevertheless that they are better off on their own.

And of small, local politicians – people with narrow-minded ideas – and local, political apparatuses, who see their neighbours and foreigners as spongers and ‘enemies’ . As a consequence, they try to throw their funding problems over the fence of their neighbouring countries and regions, because ‘why should we pay for things and infrastructure ourselves, when we can let our neighbours pay for it’. Exactly like the short people in Randy Newman’s song.

This development should stop…

People should realize that the European Union, with its non-fatal flaws, its overly neoliberal guidance currently, its Babylonic confusion of tongues and its too moderate level of democracy is still the straw at which all countries in Europe should clutch.  Because it is a straw worth clutching at.

And that the roads toward the ‘micro Europe’, with local governance entities, local legislation and local, awkward regulations at the smallest levels, is really a ‘road to nowhere’.

Because we tried that one before: small countries, regions and local entities, formed and mandated by dangerous forms of nationalism, expansionalism and localism. To be more precise: we tried it time-and-time again with sometimes fatal results.

Europe needs the European Union, as it needs to be protected against itself. And it needs to transfer all legislation, regulations and funding issues to the EU level, in case that it becomes too confusing and annoying, when these items are laid down locally, regionally or nationally.

Traffic regulation, traffic infrastructure & funding, and traffic taxes are among the best examples of such confusing and annoying local differences, in my humble opinion.

Countries, regions and cities should stop competing with each other and stop hunting for each other’s money. Instead, they should build upon a mutually used infrastructure – open and free for everyone – that is funded with European means, based upon degree of usage, wear and tear.

To start with the infrastructure issue: countries with expensive or extremely heavily used infrastructure (f.i. mountainous countries) should then receive more money for maintenance than countries with a simple, ‘bread-and-butter’ infrastructrure, but the end-result should be that every European country and region has an infrastructure that meets minimal standards of quality, maintenance, lighting and safety and is funded from European sources.

And so it should be for all things that could and better would be harmonized…

So that every European Union citizen knows what his rights, circumstances and duties are at any moment, in any European country. And that he or she is not left at the grace of a “Herr Ober City Inspektor” or “Mr. Inspecteur Superieure de la Cité” and – in particular – of the mood that that gentleman is in at the moment. 

It will be hard to achieve this at this very moment, but not impossible if we really want it… 


  1. I agree. It pays for one to have as much legal information at his/her disposal and to look into the nuances of regulations in countries, as much as in towns and states. I think that's a very good start. Thanks for sharing that! All the best to you!

    Hubert Singleton @ RDF Attorney