The measure of a good banana: Britons love a Euro-scandal - whether it is true or not, writes Brian Cathcart

Brian Cathcart
Saturday 24 September 1994 23:02

'ARE YOU troubled by the size of your bananas?' the Sun asked in the editorial accompanying its Euro-scoop last week. In case you were, the paper provided a cut-out-and-keep paper banana, allegedly of the new minimum size laid down in European regulations. 'See how yours measure up,' it urged.

It is a fair bet that if bananas were not shaped like penises, they would not have made it quite so big in the news last week. Almost every joke at the expense of the bureaucrats of Brussels was spiced with double entendre.

This was Carry on Europe, with Kenneth Williams in boggle-eyed outrage, Richard Wattis representing the ministry and Barbara Windsor holding the banana. Not since the Commission declared in favour of straighter cucumbers has everyone had so much fun.

Was it true? Yes, came the word from Brussels, but not in that way. This was a measure intended to protect the citizens of the European Union, not to bully them. All member countries consume bananas and several grow them, while the EU has a special arrangement to import them by preference from a group of Third World countries. These are good reasons for laying down common minimum standards for bananas.

It was too late. Try as they might, the officials could not make the story go away. We had acquired, in the 'too bendy banana' affair, another piece of folklore.

So well-established is the Euro-myth that the Foreign Office has produced a booklet about it, with a foreword by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. 'New ones appear regularly in the British press,' he writes. 'They enjoy a brief period in the spotlight, stimulate jokes and complaints in saloon bars and over dinner tables up and down the country, generate letters for ministerial postbags, and then fade from view, though often to reappear a year or two later.'

You will remember a few: fishermen will have to wear hairnets; Cheddar cheese will have to be renamed unless it comes from Cheddar; home-made jam is to be banned; firefighters will have to wear blue trousers; prawn-cocktail crisps are doomed; plants may no longer be sold at church fetes; new temperature requirements mean the end of doorstep milk deliveries.

More? School trips will be forbidden under a package-holidays directive; 'hung' pheasant is to be banned; maximum noise levels have been laid down for lawn-mowers; the Women's Institute will have to stick Euro-labels on cakes; a food-colouring rule means the end of mushy peas; British horses will be exported live to France to be slaughtered for meat.

If you were to compile a list of the terrible things said about the Germans after the fall of plucky little Belgium in 1914, it would hardly be worse. Why do these Euro-myths arise? And why do they arise much more in Britain than in other European countries?

Many contain a grain of truth. For the purposes of creating and maintaining a common market Brussels has to regulate, otherwise every country would cheat in order to gain a competitive advantage. When a regulation is proposed in Europe, ministers or officials debate its scope and detail.

One way in which a myth can begin life is when a country dissents on a particular point and its representative supports his case with a reductio ad absurdum - 'If this goes through then all our lollipop ladies will have to wear waders.' The press picks it up and, even though the directive eventually takes account of the point, lollipop ladies in waders are forever fixed in the popular imagination.

On other occasions, as with prawn-cocktail crisps, there is a genuine mistake in the drafting of a directive, which can be rectified. And sometimes, as with fishermen's hairnets, wires are crossed - health rules require staff in fish-processing factories, but not on fishing boats, to wear headgear.

But people also want to believe such myths. In 17th-century England, 'London' held many of the same connotations as 'Brussels' today. It was the home of bullies and smart alecs, profiteers and busybodies, and if they could be caught in a cock-up everybody was delighted.

For example, when London companies encountered difficulties exporting cloth, they complained to the government that they were being supplied with inferior goods. The government responded by banning the use of teasels to raise the nap of the cloth, on the grounds that the use of these prickly plants harmed the material. This provoked a frenzy of righteous indignation in Gloucestershire. What do they know in London about cloth-making, they asked. We've always used teasels; you can't make proper cloth without teasels.

Teasels, or their modern equivalents, have survived, so it looks as though in that case the government was wrong. But few would argue that the effort to raise standards and thus exports was misguided; and by pursuing common standards - or uniformity if you prefer - the bureaucrats of 17th-century London were helping to create the United Kingdom.

Similar things happened in Philip II's Spain, or Richelieu's France. And in France and Spain today, on a certain level, they also resent the centralising, standardising influence of Brussels. But Britain's resentment has an extra edge. It entered the European Community late, after others - foreigners - had laid the ground rules, and it did so more because it felt it had to than because it actively wanted to. For that reason, many British people are ready to believe almost anything, no matter how far-fetched and how often denied, about Europe.

It helps, of course, that once in a while Brussels does go over the top. For example, though all the rest of the myths above are just myths, there really is a maximum noise level for lawn-mowers.

(Photograph omitted)

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