Sunday 29 January 2012

Euromyths explained

In response to growing euroscepticism across the continent and what’s looking like a bumpy ride ahead for the eurozone, The Guardian and 5 other quality European newspapers (Le Monde, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Stampa and El Pais) recently joined forces in an initiative aimed at building up “a more nuanced picture of the EU and exploring what Europe does well and what not so well”. 

The project kicked off by analysing the benefits that the EU has brought to its 500 million inhabitants. The six newspapers in the Europa project were then asked to stereotype each other, and then asked cultural commentators in each country to assess how accurate they are. It makes interesting reading, not least because many of the stereotypes actually hold true.

Whilst neither of the two quality Dutch dailies (de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad) seem to be involved in the project, this week an interesting article relating to the issues in question appeared in de Volkskrant examining the myth and reality behind the UK’s perceived antagonism to Europe, in particular, European directives. A translation of the article, which was penned by de Volkskrant’s UK and Ireland correspondent, Patrick van IJzendoorn, is produced below:

Brussels explained for Brits: this would probably be the most apt title for the letters that are sent from time to time by European Union press officers to British newspapers. For years they have been trying to refute the euromyths that have a tendency to spread like wildfire through the islands. No! No! No! they regularly try to assure readers, Brussels does not plan to harmonise the size of condoms, to change place names, to remove the Queen from passports, or to fit black boxes in cars. And though The Guardian might like to portray things differently, Great Britain meets all the European criteria for being an island.

Sometimes breakdowns in communications are so damaging that a Euro Commissioner might have to step in and write the correspondence him or herself. Only last week for example, Michel Barnier, responsible for the internal market, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the UK was perfectly within its rights to test doctors from other EU member states for their proficiency in English.

Since the case of a Nigerian-born German doctor, whose command of English was so poor it led to the death of a patient, hit the headlines four years ago, Brussels has been under fire [again]. Most Britons labour under the misapprehension that European legislation prohibits the country from implementing any kind of language test for doctors. A surprised Barnier responded however, that no such provisions are contained within the said directive.

Despite its obstructionist reputation, the UK has a tendency to regard such directives as set in stone. Last year, the UK-based arm of Bombardier lost an order to Siemens because British civil-servants, mindful of their renowned tradition for fair play, had observed the tendering guidelines [too] fastidiously. Moreover, by adding additional provisos to directives, British civil-servants can sometimes appear to be European than their continental counterparts. One classic example of ‘goldplating’ is a twelve-page directive on abattoirs. Whereas the French managed to summarise the directive into just seven pages, the British civil-service succeeded in increasing the scope of the directive to the proportions of a novella.

It is directives with respect to British hobbyhorses such as health & safety and equal rights that start to lead a life of their own once they are washed ashore at Dover. One such general directive, on safe working practices, was interpreted as banning sliding poles in fire-stations. When Brussels stipulates that every building has to have an entrance for disabled people, the British add the proviso that this must be the main entrance. Another directive about providing adequate information on public transport systems led South West Trains to take a decision to bombard passengers, even those in designated quiet carriages, with running announcements - all superfluous to requirements - for the whole of the journey.

Where does this overzealousness come from? In his book This Blessed Plot, journalist Hugo Young, suggested that it’s all part of a conspiracy theory. When, after several abortive attempts, the UK was finally admitted to Europe's top table of nations, key europhile mandarins, especially those at the Foreign Office, purportedly had a secret plan to introduce federalism through the back door. Whereas the French say ‘yes’ to directives from Brussels and then blatantly flout the rules, the British do exactly the opposite. They adhere to the directives so fanatically that a market-stall holder might be threatened with a prison sentence for selling fruit in pounds and ounces.

In this way, ‘Brussels’ becomes the perfect scapegoat. In order to combat euroscepticism and to give member states greater freedom, the European Commission has decided that directives need not be implemented in exaggerated fashion. Let this be the only directive that the British disregard outright.

Translation of article in de Volkskrant, Friday 27 January 2012