Canada·Analysis

Tall tales about bananas: How 'euro-myths' haunt the U.K. Brexit debate: Margaret Evans

Tall tales about the European Community flowed fast and furious in the U.K. in the 1990s, and they're back in heavy circulation in the run-up to Britain's EU referendum this week, the CBC's Margaret Evans writes from London.

Criticism of European Community's sprawling bureaucracy in 1990s has echoes in current referendum campaign

Former London mayor Boris Johnson had been campaigning to get Britain out of the European Union. (Dominic Lipinski/Associated Press)

Back in the 1990s, when Jacques Delors sat blinking behind his giant glasses in a Sphinx-like pose as president of the European Commission, the EU press corps in town, myself included, would make a daily trek to the commission for a noon briefing. 

There was, of course, a café/bar where you could down a quick espresso or even a shot of something stronger if you wanted before you hit the briefing that would inevitably be full of talk about competition rules and harmonizing fisheries policy.

European integration was, and is, a big, complex and often boring project that does require a lot of rules and regulations to keep the world's largest single market in play. 

But back then it still managed to be exciting, the years that would eventually lead to the birth of the euro, however flawed.

The press room was full of characters, a mix of Italian, Spanish, German and French journalists. And later came the Nordics, trying and failing, for quite some time, to get the southerners to stop smoking in the press room.

The Sun newspaper recently published an article saying about 15 per cent of Britons still believe euro-myths. It neglected to mention the Sun itself reported a number of them in the first place, including one about bananas, which was a blaring headline on Sept. 21, 1994.

One of the most eccentric figures of those days was a Brit with a plummy accent and impossibly messy blond hair who wrote for the Daily Telegraph, one Boris Johnson, today a Conservative MP and the former mayor of London. He's also one of the key figures campaigning to lead Britain out of the EU in Thursday's referendum.

Johnson seemed to love the verbal sparring matches he got into with the various EU commissioners, those appointed by national governments to serve on what was essentially the European executive. 

Johnson was also known for spawning more than his fair share of "euro-myths," tall tales about the European Community as it was back then, its sprawling bureaucracy a favourite target.   

No more double-decker buses?

There were plenty of them: the commission planned to bar double-decker buses; to limit the amount of cleavage a barmaid could show; to ban prawn-flavoured potato chips and to insist on a one-size-fits-all euro-condom.

This last was reported by the British Independent newspaper in 1996, with plenty of witticisms about what it took to be an EU "member."

Campaigns on both sides of Britain's referendum on EU membership have been pushing their messages hard, but more than a few of those messages are actually myths. 3:03

One of the most enduring euro-myths, although I hesitate to mention it in such close proximity to the above euro-myth, has been that Brussels wanted to ban the sale of bananas suffering from "abnormal curvature."

Like most euro-myths, there was a kernel of truth at the nub of it. There was indeed a regulation on the size and shape of bananas, but it sought to classify them for consumers, not ban them. And the retailing industry reportedly asked for it.  

So fast and furious were the euro-myths of the 1990s and 2000s that the European Commission created a blog to counter them with a "rapid rebuttal service." 

A man walks by artificial painted cows outside the 'Active Market Regulation: Balanced Markets - Fair Prices' congress organized by the European Milk Board in Brussels on Feb. 13, 2007. Railing for years against intrusion into daily life with petty rules, the British have made red tape and regulation a theme in the referendum campaign. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

But many are still in heavy circulation in the U.K. In fact some are still being recycled by Johnson himself. This was BOJO, as he's called here, out on his Brexit Bus early in the referendum campaign.

"It is absurd that we are told that you cannot sell bananas in bunches of more than two or three or that you cannot sell bananas with abnormal curvature of the fingers. Why should they tell us how powerful our vacuum cleaners should be?"

How relevant are bananas?

There is a regulation limiting the power on vacuum cleaners and other household appliances, but the commission points out the regulation is in the service of energy efficiency. 

The Sun newspaper here recently published an article saying about 15 per cent of Brits still believe euro-myths. It neglected to mention that the Sun itself reported a number of them in the first place, including the one about bananas.

Sun columnist Trevor Kavanaugh says: 'What we’re seeing is the authority of the European Union being eroded by the arrogance of a totally undemocratic and unaccountable elite who hand down their dictates to the people.' (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

Last week, the paper urged its more than one million readers to vote LEAVE. Sun columnist Trevor Kavanaugh calls it the natural outcome of 30 years of Euro-skepticism.

"What we're seeing is the authority of the European Union being eroded by the arrogance of a totally undemocratic and unaccountable elite who hand down their dictates to the people," he says. 

Will Britain break up with Europe? 1:03

"Bananas are irrelevant in all of this. It is the right of the people [in EU] countries to elect and if necessary dismiss the politicians they think are doing the wrong thing."

The Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke, who announced earlier this month that he plans to retire at the next general election after nearly five decades at Westminster, is a rare bird.

Clarke served as a cabinet minister under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron and remains a committed Europhile. He says the misrepresentation of the power of Brussels should itself qualify as a euro-myth.

Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke says the misrepresentation of the power of Brussels should qualify as a euro-myth itself. (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

"Most of the public has been persuaded by the [leave] campaigners that some grey men in Brussels have imposed thousands of laws upon us … and of course they're all the laws British lobbies always demand on consumer protection, product quality, environmental rules … all of this kind of thing."

Debunking claims

There's an organization in the U.K. called Full Fact that operates out of a large, sunny room on a quiet street in Central London's Holborn district. It's an independent charity and its fact checkers are engaged full on in debunking false claims made by campaigners on both sides of the referendum debate.

Will Moy, director of Full Fact, an independent charity that debunks false claims on both sides in the referendum debate, says many Britons don’t know much about how the EU runs. (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

Director Will Moy says many Brits simply don't know much about how the European Union operates. He points out that one of the top five Google questions about the EU in Britain is "What is the European Union?" 

That's a pretty clear indication of just how far away Brussels is in the minds of many here, even if it is just a two-hour train ride away.

Moy says the most disingenuous claims from the leave side are the constant refrain that Britain sends 350 million pounds a week to Brussels. On the stay side, it's that Britain can control internal EU migration. 

'Aftertaste of suspicion'

"I think there is a question hanging for the media about how far they have enabled this campaign to be founded on information that can't be trusted," says Moy, "which is going to leave a lingering aftertaste of suspicion over British politics for quite a time to come."

Political scientist Tim Bale says there are so many euro-myths it would be out of the question to debunk them all. (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

Political scientist Tim Bale says there are so many euro-myths out there that it would be impossible to debunk them all.

"But they all speak, I guess, to a concern about unnecessary interference and also about, I think, an anxiety on the part of the British that they'll somehow lose their island culture." 

Bale says it's especially tough when some in the remain camp have changed their spots so dramatically.   

"The conservatives who are leading that campaign have spent, you know, 20 years actually peddling some of those myths themselves, so it's very, very difficult for them to execute this sort of hand-brake turn and suddenly tell people that they're not true." 

That leaves the stage to Boris, and other peddlers. 

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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