Read, Red, Red Tape

The whole Brexit debacle contains a number of interwoven factors.

For those favouring leaving the European Union, there is a mix of fear about immigration, powered by a prejudice against those deemed to be foreigners, combined with a deep suspicion that the EU has trussed up the once Great Britain with endless reams of red tape.

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Those boosting the Leave campaign such as Boris Johnson told big tales about how bureaucrats in Brussels were strangling British initiative with rules, regulations and ridiculous restrictions.

The problem with this argument as a reason to leave the EU is that red tape is an international affliction that is everywhere. It is manifest all over the world and has been driving people around the bend for ever.

There are many and various examples of this.

A favourite New Zealand example was the ruling that if you are homeless you need to provide a residential address in order to register for a benefit. The absurdity of this is immediately evident to even a small child but it remains a shimmering example of red tape nonsense.

Another classic comes from Germany.

While living there and wanting to post something back to NZ, I found out that if damage occurres in transit then this is not the fault of the postal service.

Instead it means it is your fault because you must not have package it well enough to withstand the handling.

As an out-clause, this was a masterpiece, a classic Catch-22 that meant whatever happened, the post service had absolved themselves of any responsibility for damage.


The origin of red tape lies in the 16th century when the Spanish administration of Charles V, King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, used red tape tied around important documents that required urgent attention in order to speed up administrative tasks. Lesser files were tied with string.

Nowadays, organisations generate so many regulations, policies and procedures that there would never be enough red tape to go around them all.

The Brexit brigade latched on to EU examples of red tape to paint the eurocrats in Brussels as small-minded clerks who had a rule for everything.

Boris Johnson, talking up leaving the EU said: "The Gettysburg Address: 286 words, while the EU regulations on the sale of cabbage have 26,911 words." The problem with this statement is that it is not even true.

In fact, the EU regulation on cabbages has nil words but British farmers have to follow Assured Produce Standards, also called the Red Tractor Assurance. The author of the organisation's protocol for cabbage says it has 23,510 words.

It seems a very sad argument for Brexit supporters to make, suggesting UK red tape is superior and of better quality than EU red tape — as if this was a virtue.

It is like saying that the rain and cold weather of Britain is a better class of damp than say France or Spain, as if that was something to be pleased about.

True, the regulators in Brussels cannot control English weather. If they could it would make a compelling argument in Britain for remaining in the EU.

Terry Sarten (aka Tel) is a writer, musician, social worker and apprentice curmudgeon — feedback: