A few years ago, tabloid papers revelled in tales of interference in daily life by "Brussels bureaucrats". This meddling invariably involved attempts to ban cherished things; the pint of beer, the sale of spuds in pounds, the signposting of roads in miles, and, most infamously, bendy bananas. As a journalist on the Hull Daily Mail in 1995, one of my reports contributed to this mélange: following EU rules, a British inspector had ordered the return to Spain of 880 punnets of strawberries on the grounds that they were too square.
While some Europhiles suggested these stories had been cooked up by xenophobic hacks, many of them were at least partly rooted in fact, as I discovered in Hull. So, Britain is officially committed to ditching the pint and the mile; greengrocers must sell in kilos and the EU does specify the exact curvature of bananas. But the other side of the story is that the UK has negotiated an unlimited opt-out for the pint and mile; greengrocers may display prices in pounds and they may also sell bendy bananas, though not as Class I fruit.
So, donning my referee's black kit, what are we to make of the claims made this week that Europe hindered travellers by delaying the UK's response to the threat from volcanic ash? Nigel Farage, the UKIP politician seeking a Westminster seat, claimed the EU's Single European Sky agreement was preventing Britain from lifting the no-fly zone.
The agreement co-ordinates air traffic control between EU members. Because this was a safety issue, it was up to individual states to decide when to resume flying and Continental states demonstrated this by lifting restrictions before Britain did. Richard Taylor, of the UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, said: "Nigel Farage obviously hasn't got any knowledge of aviation. [Single European Sky] hasn't got anything to do with the events of the past week."
The EU did, though, interfere severely in the treatment of passengers – by giving them the right to recompense for delays. Regulations overseen by Brussels bureaucrats will result in the reimbursement of hotel and other expenses for tens of thousands of passengers. Although it isn't perfect – as Ryanair showed by initially refusing to pay up – the EU Regulation on Air Passenger Rights is one of the best examples of a European policy protecting consumers with a robustness probably beyond the reach of individual member states. Similarly, the package travel regulations protects anyone booking a traditional package holiday; there are plans to extend this to travellers booking DIY holidays on the internet.
There are many other examples of EU action, such as the cleaning up of bathing beach water, the ban on phthalates in children's PVC toys, and the catch-all anti-crooks charter, the unfair commercial practices directive. Particularly successful has been the crackdown on "roaming" charges, which has slashed the cost of phoning home from abroad – and which was fiercely resisted by mobile phone companies.
When I visited Brussels two years ago, MEPs stressed that while much of the EU's focus had been on making the common market work well for business, now was the time to make it work well for consumers, too.
The question is: how long will the EU's doughty defence of the public last? Consumer groups in Brussels tell me that lobbyists representing commercial interests have considerably stepped up their operations recently. With much reform coming out of Brussels rather than Westminster, this expense-accounted army of spinners and fixers will be trying to nobble future versions of the air passenger rights charter.
Heroes and villaIns
Hero: Lloyds Bank
As regular readers know, this column does not often garland banks, but raise a small cheer for Lloyds, which has promised to waive penalty fees for customers among the tens of thousands of airline passengers who ran up overdrafts or paid credit card instalments late because they were stranded abroad this week.
Villain: wedding insurance
Couples spend an an average of £15,261 on their big day, according to a survey. So it's probably worth taking out an insurance policy – but check the small print. Defaqto checked 80 policies and found only 14 per cent covered a supplier's "failure to meet obligations"– useful if you have a duff photographer, cake-maker or venue.