The British public loves a euro-furore – a story about changes to our traditional way of doing things, usually dreamt up by “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” or “meddling eurocrats”.
The stories do not have to be true to get wide circulation, though usually there is at least a grain of truth.
The European Commission’s ultimate defence against accusations of barminess and meddling is that very few European laws get passed without the UK government’s agreement.
Here is a selection of recent and not-so-recent furores we have loved over the 50 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Community.
The story is that Brussels is forcing Britain to give up its beloved imperial measurements – ounces, pounds and stones, feet and inches, miles and acres, and others. Five market traders, widely known as the metric martyrs, went all the way to the High Court to defend their right to sell food by the pound. They lost, and Brussels was widely cast as the villain of the story.
Brussels rules are not threatening the British pint
But was Brussels guilty? Yes and No. The UK committed itself to gradually going metric in a white paper in 1972, a year before it joined the European Community. But once in, its obligation to make the switch was formalised.
Since 1 January 2000 food has been sold in grams and kilograms, though ounces and pounds can be indicated as well, at least until 2009. The UK is technically under an obligation to dump the mile, pint, acre and troy ounce, which are still in general use, at some point in the future.
Although the European Commission says it has no desire to force the pace, and will never stop Britons downing pints of beer, the odd commissioner sometimes mutters that it is time for the UK to fall into line. British children already know nothing about pounds and stones, feet and inches, or degrees Fahrenheit, so for the next generation it may not be a big issue.
THE STRAIGHT BANANA
Was the European Union trying to ban straight bananas, or bent ones? This story goes back so far that a lot of people are no longer sure quite what the scandal was about. They just remember that Brussels seemed to be taking an unhealthy interest in the shape of this fruit.
If it’s abnormally curved, it’s not Class I
Here is the correct answer: the commissioners have no problem with straight bananas, it’s the crooked ones they don’t like so much, but they have never banned them. As Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94 puts it, bananas must be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature”. In the case of “Extra class” bananas, there is no wiggle room, but Class 1 bananas can have “slight defects of shape”, and Class 2 bananas can have full-on “defects of shape”.
No attempt is made to define “abnormal curvature” in the case of bananas, which must lead to lots of arguments. Contrast the case of cucumbers (Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88), where Class I and “Extra class” cucumbers are allowed a bend of 10mm per 10cm of length. Class II cucumbers can bend twice as much.
The city once known in English as Bombay is now known as Mumbai. So should the spicy snack known as Bombay Mix be renamed, in order to strip it of colonial overtones?
According to one British newspaper in July 2006, this is precisely what “nutty EU officials” were demanding, in the name of political correctness. It would be an exaggeration to say that the British nation was united in indignation, but the story is an interesting one because it is a 100% pure example of what the European Commission calls a “euromyth”.
It was traced back to its roots by the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent at the time, David Rennie, who spoke to the small-town news agency which sold the story to the national press. The agency’s news editor said it “came from a mate of his at the Home Office, who had heard it being talked about”. Had he tried to pin it down, or found any piece of paper discussing the change? Had he found a manufacturer who had been advised to alter a product name? No, it was “just meant to be funny for the tabloids”.
There was great alarm in 2005 when it was reported that “po-faced pen-pushers” from the EU had ordered a cover-up of barmaids’ cleavages. The story was that a proposed new directive would stop workers exposing their skin to the sun, because of the risk of skin cancer. One paper launched a “Save Our Jugs” campaign.
Oktoberfest can keep the traditional Bavarian dresses
The draft Optical Radiation directive in fact said nothing about barmaids’ breasts. On the other hand, it would have made employers responsible for ensuring that their staff – be they barmaids, builders or park-keepers – did not suffer from over-exposure to the sun, by using sun cream or covering up their skin, as appropriate.
In the end, a vote in the European Parliament ensured that sunshine was dropped from the directive. It provides protection for people working with artificial radiation sources, such as lasers and infra-red lamps, but leaves barmaids and their admiring customers unaffected.
Back in the 1980s, the European Commission hatched a plan to re-name the British sausage an “emulsified high-fat offal tube”. A government minister successfully repelled the threat and became prime minister thanks to a wave of support for the Great British Banger. His name was Jim Hacker, and this was not the real world, but the television comedy Yes Minister.
Sausages are now better labelled – but not as “offal tubes”
The trouble is, Yes Minister was very realistic, and those whose memories are not razor sharp are by now starting to get confused between art and reality. The eurosausage is another euromyth, but one as believable as Mumbai mix.
At the same time, European legislation has led to some changes in the great British banger. Rules on better labelling of food made it compulsory to specify when a product contained “mechanically recovered meat” – a substance sucked out of bones – and said that it would not count as part of the product’s meat content. At this point manufacturers lost their enthusiasm for it, and it is now rarely encountered.
A European “safety directive” was accused in 2002 of forcing fire stations to abandon the poles the firefighters have traditionally used to slide quickly from their sleeping quarters to their fire engines. The pole is fast, but one firefighter can get squashed by the next one coming down. So, the story went, Brussels decreed it unsafe. After 200 years of pole-sliding, firemen were forced to use the stairs.
Actually there was no mention of firemen’s poles in any EU health and safety legislation. And poles are still used by many British fire services.
So was the story false? Not entirely. The UK government transposed some pieces of EU legislation into British law with the 1992 Codes of Practice on health and safety at work, which may have served as the cue for some fire services to stop using the pole on health and safety grounds.
However, what about the county fire service that has reinstated the pole after finding that groups of sleepy, half-dressed firemen rushing down two or three flights of stairs in the middle of the night tend to end up in a heap at the bottom? Has it too been spurred into action by the European “safety directive”?
CORGIS TO BE BANNED
In 2002 the press reported a threat to certain breeds of the Queen’s favourite dog from “a controversial EU convention”. About 100 breeds, including some corgis, bulldogs, King Charles and cocker spaniels, were apparently in danger of being banned.
Corgis are famously associated with the Queen
The story turned on one key mistake. A European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals does exist, and it does condemn the breeding of some varieties of dogs as pets. However, it is a product of the Council of Europe, Europe’s main human rights “watchdog”, not of the European Union, or “Brussels bureaucrats”.
The UK is a member of the Council of Europe, but has not signed up to this particular convention.
NO MORE YOGHURT
In 2003, newspapers detected a threat to British yoghurt. In future it would be known as “fermented milk” or even “mild, alternate-culture, heat-treated fermented milk”, as part of what one called an attempt to define a “standardised euro-pudding”.
Actually, no official proposals had been drawn up. Even in unofficial discussions, the European Commission said, there had been no suggestion that producers would be prevented from using the word “yoghurt”, only that other terms such as “heat-treated” or “mild” should be used as well. The goal was to help yoghurt producers in one country sell their product in another, where traditional yoghurts were slightly different.
Three years later the story resurfaced. This time a newspaper said only yoghurts made according to traditional Bulgarian recipes would be able to use the name. The European Commission repeated that the idea of producing an EU-wide “harmonised” definition of yoghurt had been debated in 2003, but then abandoned.