As Tory Eurosceptics commence their campaign for the next election, it is no coincidence that tales poking fun at Brussels have started to appear in the British press. The most successful Euro-myth doing the rounds is a report suggesting that the European Union's animal-welfare rules should apply to shellfish.
"Mussels must be given rest breaks and oysters given stress-relieving showers during transportation," said a report in the Daily Telegraph last week, citing a European Union directive. Ho, ho, ho, chortled Euro- sceptics. "Silly old Brussels.''
If the story is true, the European Commission's rules are patently absurd. At the week-end, however, Commission officials were still adamantly denying the report, condemning it as little but a smear by Europhobes. So where did the report come from? Who spread it, and why?
There is, indeed, a Brussels directive, agreed in 1991, on animal welfare, which sets out regulations for animal transport. The rules say all cold- blooded beasts must be regularly watered and rested. The directive was introduced largely to safeguard against cruelty to livestock, but was widely drawn and a casual glance might suggest it is applicable to all forms of animal life - including shellfish. The annexes are particularly loosely drafted. However, there is a paragraph in the directive which allows for exceptions. The measures should only be applied "where appropriate to the species concerned".
It is clear that the Commission intended national governments, when adapting their laws in line with EU directives, to use common sense.
Should there ever have been any doubt about the application of the law, a new directive is being introduced that will close the loopholes, specifically excluding shellfish and other species for which the measures would be "inappropriate". The resting and feeding rules now will apply only to "domestic solipeds, domestic animals of the bovine, ovine, caprine or porcine species''.
Inquiries reveal that the shellfish story resulted from remarks by none other than Angela Browning, a junior British agriculture minister. She let it be known to sympathetic ears in Westminster that if it had not been for the British government the Brussels bureaucrats would have happily applied their welfare rules to every species under the sun. It was only because of British insistence that the rules were tightened, Ms Browning asserted. "What is appropriate for transporting sheep is very different from what is appropriate for transporting mussels," she observed - as if the Brussels bureaucrats needed her to tell them that.
This was enough for John Whittingdale, Tory MP for Colchester South and Maldon (home of many shellfish producers) to put out a press release on the issue. The legislation was dreamt up by "unthinking bureaucrats" and will "threaten the livelihood of large numbers of people", he said. As Commission officials struggled to be heard, his words were widely reported.
What the minister never acknowledged was that Brussels had no intention of applying its livestock rules to shellfish. At worst, there may have been some casual drafting in the original directive. But Ms Browning never quoted the "where appropriate" clause.
The biggest danger presented by the directive, as Ms Browning well knew, was that, without detailed clarification, some daft bureaucrat in Whitehall would start applying the Euro law too vigorously to everything from shrimps to swordfish, making a mockery (deliberately, some might say) of the whole thing.
The minister also failed to remind people that it was the British government - under pressure from the animal welfare lobby in Britain - that pushed hardest of all EU member-states for the animal-welfare rules in the first place.