Metric Martyrs and Bendy Bananas: When is a Euromyth, a Euromyth?

, by Emily Hoquee

Metric Martyrs and Bendy Bananas: When is a Euromyth, a Euromyth?

With levels of Euroscepticism in Britain unabating and daily press declarations that the EU has banned everything from the Queen on our passports to old-fashioned tea rooms, is it time to question how much of this EU reporting is actually true?

It is no secret that the British public are broadly Eurosceptic, as countless opinion polls have confirmed. In June 2010, the European Commission’s pollsters, Eurobarometer, revealed that just 29% of Brits polled believed that EU membership was a good thing for Britain, compared to an EU-wide average of 49%. Later that year, a poll by YouGov revealed that if there were to be a referendum on British membership, 47% of survey respondents would want Britain to leave the EU, compared with 33% who would vote for Britain to retain its membership. One could be forgiven for picking up the paper and reading with trepidation that Brussels is set to ban a number of different things; milk jugs, Corgi dogs, the Queen from British passports, cars from city centres, the 999 emergency telephone number and even Cadbury’s famous ‘glass and a half’ advertising slogan from its famous chocolate bars.

In a bid to quell fears and dispel some of these rumours, the European Commission recently launched a new website specifically for British audiences, named “The EU: What’s in it for me?”. Offering a ‘no nonsense guide to what the European Union delivers’, the website includes sections on travelling and working in the EU, fighting crime, food and environment – and perhaps most tellingly of all, EU myths (also known as Euromyths). The website of the European Commission’s UK Representation also has a section dedicated to debunking Euromyths, which lists some of the best-known examples and dispels them one-by-one.

So when is a Euromyth - that is to say an article about the EU that is false, refers to bureaucratic absurdity and lampoons the Union - really a Euromyth? Is British newspaper coverage of EU affairs really so distorted the Commission has had to resort to not just one, but two different websites as a means of rebuttal?

As a Brit who is deeply interested in European affairs and that regularly reads EU coverage here in the UK, I decided to examine a sample of the Commission’s Euromyths and investigate whether or not they really were myths at all. The first thing that struck me was that the articles listed came from a number of different newspapers. Broadsheets such as the Independent and the Guardian were sat there side by side with articles from tabloids such as the Daily Mirror and the now defunct News of the World. Newspapers with a reputation for printing more serious European affairs coverage are seemingly just as guilty for publishing Euromyths as those writing for the red tops.

Take the example of Britain’s 999 emergency telephone number. In January 2000 The Times published an article stating that “Brussels is to force the UK to change its emergency 999 telephone number.” The European Commission responded that, “The UK is free to keep its 999 number. We are required to make available 112 as an emergency number alongside it as this is the number that can be used in every member state.” The Universal Service Directive 2002/22/EC (36) states that “...users should be able to call the single European emergency number “112”, and any other national emergency telephone numbers, including public pay telephones, without the use of any means of payment.” The text in the Directive confirms that the article is indeed a true Euromyth.

In September 2007, the Daily Mail published claims that the “EU wants to get rid of the Queen from our passports.” The article, which was also repeated in the Daily Telegraph on the same day, stated that the traditional message from the Queen contained in all British passports requesting assistance and protection for the holder anywhere in the world could be dropped as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon (which was being negotiated at the time). The European Commission responded with the following statement: “There has been a recommendation to include a passage on all EU citizens’ rights in passports but there is currently no legal proposal to that effect. Under no circumstances would this replace any existing texts and symbols, including references to Her Majesty.” The Commission is referring to recommendations made by a European Parliament Green Paper on diplomatic and consular protection of EU citizens in third countries. The Commission also adopted a Recommendation to Member States on reproducing the text of Article 20 TEC (now Article 23 of the TFEU) in passports issued after 1 July 2009. There is no mention of Queen Elizabeth II in the recommendation and the story is another example of a true Euromyth.

In September 2010, the Daily Mail published claims that “Cadbury’s has to remove the famous phrase ‘glass and a half’ slogan from its Dairy Milk bars following claims it had failed to comply with EU metrification rules.” The article continued, “...the famous slogan has now been replaced with the words: “The equivalent of 426ml of fresh liquid milk in every 227g of milk chocolate.” Cadbury, whose brand is widely recognised in the UK, claimed that it had been advised that it would be forced to drop the slogan under European rules. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Mail, the Commission responded “...[your] headline is completely inaccurate. EU measurement regulations have in no way, shape or form forced Cadbury to drop its famous phrase. Cadbury have made this decision of their own volition but perhaps on poor advice.” The letter was published on the European Commission’s website but not by the Daily Mail.

The examples here are typical of the sort of coverage the EU receives in British newspapers every week. The publication of such stories can be attributed to three key sources:

 Journalists who misunderstand or grossly misinterpret EU directives (particularly concerning new legislation), or who lack an understanding about how the EU works

 Lobby groups attempting to further either their own or their client’s interests

 Eurosceptic politicians and their political parties

On the whole, the Euromyths on the Commission’s website do seem to be true Euromyths. However, two of the Euromyths refuted do seem dubious as they did contain an element of truth in their reporting. These concern bendy bananas and metrification. Claims about UK/EU relations and metrification, such as “Brussels will stop the UK from using miles and pints” have circled British newspapers for a number of years now. This claim is cited as a Euromyth by the European Commission, who have stated that, “Going metric is not the result of EU membership, but was in fact started by the British government in 1965, eight years prior to the UK’s EU accession.” The UK government set up its own metrification board in 1969, following requests from the industry in the mid 1960s. In 1989, under the European Units of Measurement Directive (89/617/EE) metric measures were legally required to appear alongside imperial measures on all goods labelling. This directive also required EU member states to make all measures (including road signs) metric but the UK negotiated a time delay for this. That delay was due to expired in 2009, but in 2007 the then Commissioner for Industry Gunter Verheugen announced that plans to force the UK to switch entirely to metrification had been abandoned. Should this claim be re-published again today, it would indeed be a Euromyth as there is no legislation to ban imperial measures. However, although the European Commission says that a ban on imperial measures is a Euromyth, due to the later involvement of EU directives and the special derogation terms the UK received from the EU, the story is perhaps only half a Euromyth.

Finally, one Euromyth listed by the Commission is not really a Euromyth at all. Just like reports about forced metrification, stories that the EU has banned curved bananas have also circulated in British newspapers for a number of years now. The European Commission has responded to these accusations with the following statement, “Bananas are classified according to quality and size for international trade. Individual governments and the industry have previously had their own standards. The European Commission was asked by national agriculture ministers and the industry to draft legislation in this area. The proposed quality standards were adopted by national ministers in the Council in 1994.” The original legislation concerning this, Commission Regulation (EC) No 2257/94 of 16 September 1994, outlined the quality standards for bananas and stated that “The bananas must from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers.” Therefore, this Euromyth is not really a myth at all. The Commission correctly state that they created international standards for this sector, but these standards also included the premise that bananas should not be abnormally curved. It should be noted that these particular regulations were abandoned in June 2002.

Euromyths continue to form a notable part of EU coverage in the British press, but with the advent of modern technology, such as the European Commission’s websites, and an improved communications strategy by the EU then the task of rebutting Euromyths is becoming an increasingly easier. However, if the rebuttal is limited to a statement published by the Commission on its website then its message will reach a very limited audience.

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