EARLIER this year David Coburn, who sits in the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party, came up with a rather unusual argument for leaving the European Union: the quality of his morning toast. He claimed that EU regulation meant toasters had only “the power of one candle or something”, leaving his bread “all peely-wally” rather than nicely roasted. Proponents of Brexit latched on to the story as yet another example of continental meddling messing with time-honoured British traditions.

In fact, the EU does not yet regulate the energy consumption of toasters. But they are among the products currently being considered by the European Commission for inclusion in the Ecodesign Directive, the main EU policy instrument for improving the energy efficiency of products such as fridges, ovens and televisions. The directive compels manufacturers to improve efficiency and gradually phase out products that no longer meet the requirements. Ecodesign standards are complemented by energy labels to help consumers buy more efficient products that are cheaper to run. Between them, the products covered by the policy account for more than half of gross energy consumption in the EU.

Far from uselessly meddling in people’s lives, the combination of Ecodesign standards and energy labels is arguably the most successful of the EU’s energy-efficiency policies. According to the European Commission’s latest impact assessment, energy consumption for the average product will be around 18% lower by 2020 than it would have been without the Ecodesign directive. The energy savings are equivalent to around 165m tons of oil per year—more than half the energy consumption of Germany, and half the European energy savings target for 2020.

Ecodesign standards are good value, too. According to the International Energy Agency, they generate at least $3 of savings for every dollar spent, hence reducing costs as well as consumption. That makes them the most cost-effective way of reducing energy use.

On October 25th EU commissioners will meet to debate a new working plan for the policy. Apart from the inclusion of toasters, kettles and hairdryers, they will discuss several much-needed fixes. Many existing standards have either been overtaken by advances in efficiency or were set too low to start with. These must be updated to spur further innovation. Similarly, many of the energy labels on products such as ovens and TVs are no longer of much use, as the vast majority of products now achieve the highest rating.

This is good news. It shows that the policy has led to efficiency improvements, says Brenda Boardman, an energy-efficiency expert at Oxford University. But it means that the Commission needs to update the standards to drive further savings.

If it fails to do so, Mr Coburn and his Eurosceptic associates may be to blame. This spring the Commission acknowledged that Ecodesign regulations tend to attract “ridicule” from those who think the EU intrudes too much into citizens’ daily lives. Such complaints are most common in Britain, but it is not just Brexiteers: on its website, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party sells incandescent lightbulbs (which Ecodesign standards have phased out) as a protest gesture.

Commissioners have since adopted a more “diplomatic” approach. Environmentalists worry that this will prevent the addition of new products and revisions of existing standards, endangering EU targets for energy consumption—and depriving consumers of savings on their energy bills. “These policies are central to the EU’s energy-efficiency and climate-mitigation efforts,” says Jack Hunter of the European Environmental Bureau, a green lobby.

In Brussels, even the industry lobby is keen to see the Ecodesign policy (though not the labelling rules) progress to the next stage. Paolo Falcioni, head of CECED, an appliance-manufacturers’ group, says his group is working to build support for the programme. But this is unlikely to impress policymakers in post-Brexit Britain, who, amid concerns about British tea and toast, will have to decide whether to keep the policy at all when their country leaves. Should Britain ditch Ecodesign, EU manufacturers would not be entirely disappointed. They would at least have a nearby market where they could flog the below-standard, out-of-date appliances they could no longer sell on the continent.



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