Those of us familiar with the EU are used to its complicated processes, obscure acronyms and often unfathomable procedures. We sometimes forget that it is still a hybrid project that no-one has ever tried before: a multinational, multilingual experiment in international cooperation where countries decide by common accord to pool decision-making in certain areas and under certain conditions for their own mutual benefit.
No wonder that ordinary members of the public – not to mention politicians, civil servants and journalists – are often left baffled and bemused by EU decision-making. Even MEPs and EU civil servants find it hard to keep up sometimes. When asked to rate their own knowledge of the EU on a scale of 1 to 10 in a recent survey, 39% of Brits said they knew ‘nothing at all’ about the various EU institutions and 46% admitted complete ignorance of what those institutions do. Both figures were the lowest recorded in any EU country.
This massive information gap is, of course, fertile ground for eurosceptics and nationalists, each with their own agenda. But that does not excuse the downright untruths peddled by some politicians and journalists for the sake of a cheap headline. In no other corner of Europe is so much misinformation wilfully propagated in the public domain as in the British debate about the EU.
The public seem to agree: we have the lowest level of trust in our national press of any country in the EU. Just 18% of people in the UK say they trust the press while 79% distrust it, according to a survey earlier this year (compared to an EU average of 43% who trust the press and a high of 64% in Finland).
We need a proper debate about the EU and Britain’s place in it, but let us please base the debate on facts and not fiction. One way Liberal Democrats can contribute is to debunk the myths and lies whenever we get the chance. In a modest contribution to this effort, I have selected my top 5 Euromyths from the last couple of years, from a crowded field with many candidates. Thanks go to the European Commission’s office in London, who run a very useful Euromyths blog.
1) EU bans homemade jam: the tabloids recently got their knickers in a twist about alleged EU rules banning the reuse of old jam jars to sell homemade jam at village fêtes. The only food safety rules in this field apply to business operators, not fairs or bazaars, and do not in any case ban the reuse of old jars. The story hit most national media despite having already been debunked 18 years ago. So this particular piece of ‘news’ was actually neither factual, nor new.
2) Brussels bans children’s balloons: another old chestnut thrown back into the fire by lazy journalists, who claimed the EU was banning children from blowing up balloons. In fact, old rules from 1988 merely state that certain balloons should carry a warning that children under eight should be supervised if blowing them up – which is presumably common sense for any responsible parent anyway.
3) British sports teams forced to wear EU flag: a suggestion for a voluntary gesture in a non-binding, own-initiative report by MEPs with no legislative weight whatsoever was reported by the Mail, Express and Telegraph as a new EU rule ‘forcing’ sportsmen and women to don the 15 stars on their kits. As usual, they didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.
4) Brussels wants to merge Britain with France: entering the comedy zone now, but the Express and Mail both reported on a ‘plot’ to wipe England off the map by merging it with northern France to create a new region. The story was lent weight by Eric Pickles, who condemned the evil Brussels bureaucrats. Of course, there was no such proposal, just a number of cross-border cooperation programmes to boost jobs and protect the environment.
5) EU plans to liquefy corpses and pour them down the drain: moving from comedy to farce, this story drew an indignant reaction from one Daily Express reader who observed that ‘it beggars belief’. Indeed, and mostly because it wasn’t true of course. The only ‘plan’ involved was a proposal to cut CO2 emissions from cremation by a Belgian undertakers’ association. The EU has nothing to do with this. The Express was clearly ashamed enough to pull the story from its website, but not so the York Press.