My biggest beef with the European Union has always been the way it stifles consumer-friendly innovation in the interests of incumbent businesses and organisations. Today’s victory for Sir James Dyson at the European General Court lays bare an especially shocking example.
Dyson’s case, which has taken five years in the courts, reveals just how corrupt and crony-capitalist the European Union has become. It is no surprise that Sir James was and is a big supporter of Britain leaving the EU. Essentially, the rules have been bent to allow German manufacturers to deceive customers about the performance of their vacuum cleaners, in a manner uncannily similar to – but even worse than — the way mostly German car manufacturers deceived customers about the emissions from diesel vehicles.
In today’s decision – a very rare case in which the EU courts have had to back down — the EU’s General Court said it would uphold Dyson’s claim and that “tests of a vacuum cleaner’s energy efficiency carried out with an empty receptacle do not reflect conditions as close as possible to actual conditions of use”. Yes, you read that right: until now, in Europe only, vacuum cleaners were tested without dust, the better to suit German manufacturers.
The case concerns labels on vacuum cleaners stating how much energy they use. The Energy Label for corded vacuum cleaners is mandated by the EU’s Ecodesign and Energy Labelling regulations. The purpose is to encourage energy efficiency in such products and the job of the Energy Label is to make sure that consumers get clear information about product performance. Dyson was the first manufacturer to support limits on the power consumption of motors in vacuums. Why wouldn’t it be: its Cyclone product is very efficient?
The Energy Label was introduced throughout the EU in September 2014 and updated in September 2017. It covers overall energy rating, rated A to G, with A being best and G being worst; annual energy usage in kWh; the amount of dust in air emitted from the machine’s exhaust (A to G); the noise level in decibels; how much dust the machine picks up from carpets (A to G); and how much dust the machine picks up from hard floors and crevices (A to G).
All very reasonable, until you find that the European Commission stipulated that under these regulations, vacuum cleaners are tested empty and with no dust. This flies in the face of the methods developed by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), an international standards organization, which have been adopted by consumer test bodies and manufacturers worldwide. It is out of line with the way other appliances, such as washing machines, ovens and dishwashers are tested “loaded”, not empty.
Why would the EC have made this strange decision? Because the big German manufacturers make vacuum cleaners with bags. Sir James Dyson invented ones without bags. And the bag ones gradually become clogged with dust so they have to use more power or lose suction. The decision to test them empty plainly benefits the bag-cleaners. Behind the scenes the German manufacturers lobbied for this outcome.
The result of this is that you can buy a bag cleaner with an A rating, take it home and find that most of the time it performs like a G-rated cleaner.
So in 2013 Dyson challenged the labelling rules in the EU General Court, arguing that, to reflect real-life experience, the performance of a vacuum cleaner should be tested in real-world conditions, and that might actually include – God forbid – encountering dust. In November 2015, the EU General Court dismissed Dyson’s claims saying that dust-loaded testing is not reliable or “reproducible” and therefore could not be adopted, despite the fact that the international standard does use dust. Nonsense: in its labs and in houses, Dyson tests its own machines using real dust, fluff, grit and debris including dog biscuits and Cheerio cereals – of both the European and the American kind.
Dyson appealed to the European Court of Justice in January 2016 and on 11 May 2017 it won. The court said that to reach the conclusion it had, the General Court “distorted the facts”, “ignored their own law”, “had ignored Dyson’s evidence” and had “failed to comply with its duty to give reasons”. The ECJ said that the test must adopt, where technically possible, “a method of calculation which makes it possible to measure the energy performance of vacuum cleaners in conditions as close as possible to actual conditions of use”. The case was passed back to the General Court, which was given time to reconsider its verdict at leisure. Today, after eighteen months of cogitation (what do judges do all day?), and with nowhere to go, the court capitulated.
Dyson has this to say about the case: “the EU label flagrantly discriminated against a specific technology – Dyson’s patented cyclone. This benefited traditional, predominantly German, manufacturers who lobbied senior Commission officials. Some manufacturers have actively exploited the regulation by using low motor power when in the test state, but then using technology to increase motor power automatically when the machine fills with dust – thus appearing more efficient. This defeat software allows them to circumvent the spirit of the regulation, which the European Court considers to be acceptable because it complies with the letter of the law.”
How much more shocking does the crony-capitalist corruption at the heart of Brussels have to get before people rebel against this sort of thing? They did already? Ah yes, Brexit, true Brexit, cannot come soon enough.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.