As increasingly bizarre stories – or, as often turns out, pure myths – emerge about the European Union, Mark Tipping takes a look at how European law impacts on us.
Question: What do Austria; Belgium; Bulgaria; Cyprus; the Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Malta; the Netherlands; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Slovakia; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; and the United Kingdom have in common?
Answer: The European Union!!
Britain joined the European Union (EU) or European Economic Community (EEC) and Common Market as it was known then, on Monday, 1st January 1973. And so began a long and chequered relationship!!
It was in October 1971 that Parliament voted in favour of our joining the EEC. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath described it as the highlight of his political career. However, in a rather strange ‘cart before horse’ approach to decision making, June 1975 saw the UK hold a referendum to post-rationalise the decision. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had promised that the people would decide “through the ballot box” whether to remain in the EEC. The electorate expressed significant support for EEC membership, with 67% in favour. So far, so good!!
Although the EU has done much to develop infrastructure within the EU and trade links with the rest of the world, there is a widely held belief within British tabloid newspapers that hidden within the EU Parliament are the bureaucrats responsible for producing some very strange laws,. They are often referred to a “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” or “meddling eurocrats.”
This subject came to light again last week with an article entitled, ‘How Europe Got Its Eggs Scrambled’. But what was it all about?
Draft food labelling regulations have been produced that aim to standardise food labelling and packaging across Europe. (It’s a 75 page draft with 175 pages of amendments – a great read if you’ve got the time!!). However, within the small print are proposed regulations that would mean the likes of eggs – traditionally sold by number – having to be individually weighed so the weight can be specified on the label. However, common sense objections are being put forward. As one MEP put it, “It would be barking mad if the legislation was passed in its current form.”
This story is similar to many others that have seen the light of day over the years. But how many are true and how many are just euromyths? Is the criticism of the Brussels bureaucrats justified? I suggest you make your own mind up after considering these fine examples.
Let’s start with the humble banana that created the title of this article. Did the EU try to ban straight bananas or was it the bent ones? The truth is that if it’s abnormally curved, it’s not a Class I banana. As Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94 puts it, bananas must be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature.” However, they have never been banned.
Before you make your decision, think of the poor cucumber. Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 states that whilst Class I and ‘Extra class’ cucumbers are allowed a bend of 10mm per 10cm of length, Class II cucumbers can bend twice as much.
Next, the city once known in English as Bombay is now known as Mumbai. So should the spicy snack known as Bombay Mix have been renamed in order to strip it of colonial overtones? According to one British newspaper in 2006, this is precisely what “nutty EU officials” were demanding, in the name of political correctness. The British nation was united in indignation. Unfortunately, the story was made up by a freelance journalist and 100% euromyth!!
What about the great alarm in 2005 when it was reported that “po-faced pen-pushers” from the EU had ordered a cover-up of barmaids’ cleavages at the Oktoberfest in Bavaria? 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. In fact, the draft Optical Radiation Directive said nothing about barmaids’ breasts. It was meant to make employers responsible for ensuring that their staff 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 ensured that sunshine was dropped from the directive.
And then 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.” In fact, the idea of producing an EU-wide “harmonised” definition of yoghurt had been debated in 2003, but then abandoned.
And then there was the 2002 European “safety directive” that was accused of forcing fire stations to abandon the poles the firemen had traditionally used to slide quickly from their sleeping quarters to their fire engines. The story went that whilst the pole was fast, one fireman could get squashed by the next one coming down. As a result, Brussels had decreed it unsafe. 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.
Back in the 1980’s came the story that the European Commission had hatched a plan to re-name the British sausage an “emulsified high-fat offal tube”. It went on to say that a Government minister had successfully repelled the threat thanks to a wave of support for the Great British Banger. His name was Jim Hacker. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the real world. It was the television comedy world of ‘Yes Minister’.
And finally, the ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ (PGI) that gives legal protection to named regional food products against imitation across the EU. Here, there are two wonderful and true stories.
“Newcastle Brown Ale” obtained PGI protection that limited it to being brewed in the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. However, in 2004, the brewery decided that it would move across the river Tyne to Gateshead. As Gateshead is technically a separate town it did not fall within the required geographical restriction. The brewery had to apply to the EU to have the geographical restriction revoked. If they had not, they would have been forced either to move back to Newcastle, or stop calling it “Newcastle” brown ale.
In a similar manner, Stilton cheese can only be produced in the three English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stilton village is in the traditional county of Huntingdonshire, now a district of Cambridgeshire. This means that Stilton cheese cannot be produced in Stilton!!
So what do you think? Is it fair criticism or simply a humorous way to sell newspapers?
I don’t know the answer to that question. However, what I do know is that EU is not cheap. The UK’s contribution to the EU budget will rise to an estimated £7.6 billion in 2010/11 and that could be a very expensive joke indeed. But what does the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ think of the EU nowadays? In particular, how have views changed since the heady heights of 1975? A poll conducted in December 2009 with just over 1,000 eligible voters asked the question, “Should Britain leave the EU but maintain close trading links?” 55% agreed!!