LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Sovereignty, economic growth, immigration, influence on the world stage: these have been the big issues in Britain’s debate on whether to stay in the European Union. But teabags, vacuum cleaners and oven gloves may have as much sway on the outcome.
Attacks on EU regulations, seen by British eurosceptics as an ever-expanding swathe of petty diktats by meddlesome Brussels bureaucrats, have been a recurrent theme in the debate ahead of Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the bloc.
“Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons,” wrote former London mayor Boris Johnson in an article explaining why he would campaign to leave.
He has a long record of such charges, having made his name as a Brussels journalist in the 1990s with reports on “the tense international row over the dimensions of the Euro-condom” or alleged EU “plans to abolish the prawn cocktail flavour crisp”.
The European Commission says many such stories in British media over the decades have ranged from half-truths to complete inventions. Its website features an A-to-Z index of what it calls “euromyths”, with detailed rebuttals.
The index lists 650 stories, dating back 25 years, about alleged EU interference in areas from abattoirs to zoos via lawyers’ wigs, fry-up breakfasts, car boot sales or the sticks held by Britain’s traffic-controlling “lollipop ladies”.
With the stakes higher than ever due to Thursday’s vote, claims about EU regulations have come under unprecedented scrutiny in London as well as Brussels.
In heated exchanges shown live on British television, Johnson was grilled at length by Andrew Tyrie, a senior lawmaker from his own Conservative Party, about his claims.
Accusing the former London mayor of “exaggeration to the point of misrepresentation”, Tyrie said there were no EU bans on young children blowing up balloons or on recycling teabags.
Johnson refused to back down, citing a regulation on animal by-products which he said lay behind a ban on recycling teabags imposed by local authorities in the Welsh city of Cardiff, due to the risk that they may have come into contact with milk.
“You are in danger of ... delivering us grains of truth with mountains of nonsense,” Tyrie said at the end of the session. “I am sorry, I am telling you the truth,” Johnson replied.
Both sides in Britain’s EU debate accuse each other of making things up, and the Remain camp’s detailed forecasts on what it says would be the dire economic consequences of a so-called Brexit have been vigorously attacked.
Bashing Brussels from the angle of “bonkers regulations” is a specialty of the Leave camp. Polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest such criticisms have influenced many Britons’ views over the years.
“I was born in 1960, so was brought up in the 60s and 70s. Before then we didn’t have all this,” said Jackie Penney, an undecided voter in the town of Ashford in southeast England.
“Like the French, they’re always telling us about the size of our potatoes. They’ve got to be the right shape. Why do we need other countries to say that?”
At a referendum debate in the seaside town of Hastings, attended by Reuters reporters, participants cited EU limits on the power of vacuum cleaners as a reason to vote to leave.
That stemmed from eurosceptic press reports that new EU rules on energy efficiency would prompt panic-buying of cleaners with powerful suction before they were taken off the shelves.
The European Commission has repeatedly said those reports were wrong. “It is perfectly possible to have high-performance vacuum cleaners which are energy efficient,” it says.
Some beliefs are grounded in truth, but rules that Brussels officials say are sensible are perceived as absurd.
“I heard that normal oven gloves are going to be banned. They’ll have to resist a certain temperature. That’s just ridiculous,” said Gaye Corcoran, a pensioner living in London, explaining why she planned to vote to leave.
A Commission spokeswoman said: “Many EU single market policies are mundane but necessary for consumer protection. That includes making sure that when British and other European consumers buy oven gloves they actually work in hot ovens.”
A survey of 1,000 Britons by pollster Ipsos MORI, conducted between April 29 and May 5, found that a quarter of respondents believed the EU had banned the import of bendy bananas.
The EU does have standards for bananas, which are classified according to quality and size to ease international trade, but a reference to bananas being “free from malformation or abnormal curvature” does not amount to a ban on bendy bananas, it says.
The poll found that 15 percent of Britons believed at least one of five outright “euromyths”. These included that the EU had banned barmaids from showing too much cleavage and that sausages would be renamed “emulsified high-fat offal tubes”.
In Brussels, officials face the daunting challenge of tackling “euromyths” while avoiding taking sides in Britain’s referendum campaign lest they be accused of interference.
“We don’t do campaigning, but we do facts,” said a spokesman for the European Commission.
As new stories appear accusing the EU of sins like denying cancer patients access to new treatments, or slowing efforts to roll out high-speed broadband, the Commission’s myth-busters have been busily updating a blog rebutting such claims.
“The EU is investing billions in tackling cancer - not denying treatment,” reads one headline, while another says “EU state aid rules do not slow down urban broadband”.
The trouble for the official fact-checkers is that their messages reach only a fraction of the number of people who see the original stories.
The EU website says the post on cancer treatment has been viewed 156 times, while the one on urban broadband was seen 130 times. An entry on vacuum cleaners has been seen 6,300 times.
By contrast, the daily circulation of eurosceptic newspapers that publish countless stories lambasting EU rules range from 1.7 million for The Sun and 1.5 million for The Daily Mail to 419,000 for The Daily Express.
Support for Brussels officialdom has come from an unlikely quarter, however, in the form of opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who in the past was openly eurosceptic but is now campaigning for a Remain vote.
In a campaign speech, he urged voters to see the good side of EU regulations, citing rules on the cleanliness of beaches and restrictions on pesticides linked to a fall in the bee population, which he said were good for Britain’s environment.
“The Leave side has concocted a number of myths about the evils of the EU. Many are, frankly, bananas,” he said.
Additional reporting by William James in Ashford, Sarah Young and Costas Pitas in Hastings, writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Paul Taylor