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Silly season top ten – and more – of misleading EU media stories

Every year the summer, with its frequent famine of real political news, brings a glut of stories attacking the EU for things it has not done. Sometimes the seeds are sown by briefings emerging from government departments, sometimes by alert lobbyists spotting a chance and sometimes they feature recycled material emerging organically from newspapers IT archives.

This summer was a fertile one.

Here is a top ten, many of which have already featured on this blog.

10/ The Express got the summer off to a Nordic-style early start in June by claiming that “plans in Brussels” would mean traditional Brits would pay more for their Sunday roast beef. This was about proposals for a meat tax from…..the Swedish Board of Agriculture.

9/ The supposed ban on Milk of Magnesia reported in July never existed. And even if it had, it would not have been an “EU ban”, as the EU is not the regulator responsible for the safety issue which had arisen with breaches of the sulfate limits in some batches of the product.

8/ In August, readers were informed by the Scotsman, Farmers’ Weekly and others that EU rules would mean many tractor drivers would only be able to work for half an hour a day, to comply with new limits on vibrations. There was never the remotest question of tractor time being limited to 30 minutes. It turned out that the UK had had since 2002 to implement the new rules and that the issue arose at all only for a small minority of old vehicles that had not already been adapted. Both the UK Health and Safety Executive and the National Famers’ Union had issued guidance on various ways in which the rules could be complied with, including through adapting and better maintaining tractors and through better training of operators. The rules have been applied for several years in France and Germany without problems, as those countries chose to implement them, including for older vehicles, well before the 2014 deadline set by the EU legislation.

7/ Back in July, the storm over assertions that EU rules were making it impossible to remove bats from ancient buildings even reached the House of Commons. In fact, as we wrote to the Daily Mail: “EU rules, agreed by the UK, do provide protection for bats, an endangered species. But member states can, through local authorities, allow exemptions to prevent serious damage to property and for health and safety reasons. So if ancient churches are under threat from bats, that’s down to the UK, not a ‘batty EU ruling’.”

6/ The Sunday Times claimed in August that new rules would mean ‘Made In Britain’ tags would have to be removed from high-quality British products made with imported raw materials, such as Italian leather or New Zealand wool. In fact the main point of the proposals – which anyway need to be agreed by elected Ministers and MEPs – is to make country of origin marking compulsory for most products, so that consumers are better informed and protected. Not only would Made In Britain labels stay on products genuinely made in Britain that already carry them, but that more products would be likely to feature such labels. The Sunday Times had the good grace to publish on 2 September our letter rebutting this story. But at around the same time it was recycled again by the Daily Mail.

5/ The Sun claimed on 8 August, based on a Department of Transport press release, that a “barmy EU rule which forces mechanics to carry out specialist driving training” is to be scrapped.” Such a rule had indeed been in force in the UK. The UK had pledged to scrap it. But it was a classic case of what is known in EU jargon as “gold-plating”: going further in national law than EU law requires. In other words, this was a UK rule. It had never been an EU one.

4/ Staying with transport, the silly season was given a final flourish, just as the nights started to draw in and schools prepared to open again, by a plethora of “Big Brother Brussels” stories claiming “bureaucrats” were planning to impose “intelligent speed adaptation” (ISA) technology in cars so that drivers could no longer exceed the speed limit. A nice story, but one problem with it: there simply is no such proposal and none is planned. All of the journalists concerned were clearly told this. But many chose to ignore such inconvenient information. It is also worth noting that most trials of intelligent speed adaptation technology, dating back more than a decade, have been based on a system drivers can use as guidance and/or easily override, not on an all-powerful “Big Brother” in the car, and that many best-selling satellite navigation systems already alert drivers when they exceed the limit on a given road. The EU has funded some research into the development of ISA – as indeed has the UK Department of Transport. But there is not even a non-binding Recommendation on the table or planned, let alone a proposal for an EU law.

3/The Daily Mail’s latest claims on 16 August that EU regulations will force householders to use five bins for recycling were, not to put too fine a point on it, complete rubbish. This completely incorrect story gets a high ranking for the number of times it has itself been recycled. But repetition does not make it true. It is up to each Member State how it organises the separation of household waste. Frequency of bin collection is again up to the UK authorities, despite occasional claims that the EU has somehow outlawed weekly collections – which would be odd given that in some Member States collections are more frequent than weekly.

2/ Some media continue to blame the EU for decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights – not an EU body but a Council of Europe one. The Sun – a serial offender in the past on this issue – the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph were all forced to publish corrections over the summer.

1/ Our summer chart topper is the mini-media frenzy claiming that the EU would be forcing the UK to abolish national birth and death certificates and replace them with EU-branded ones. It follows the classic format of the press seizing on a political briefing against a nefarious, but non-existent, “Brussels plot” and then further blowing it up.

The Commission has proposed that Member States should recognise each other’s basic documents – like birth and marriage certificates for individuals or certain legal documents for companies – without the current need for special stamps or legalisation, which are expensive and time-consuming. The proposal also includes an additional option of standard EU forms for some situations, which would be just that: optional. Those who find forms in the EU format would be convenient – for example businesses who operate cross-border or people with property in more than one EU country – would be able to request them. The forms would not replace national forms.

Both the UK government and a wide range of British experts and stakeholders had previously broadly welcomed the proposal. But in August, Communities Minister Eric Pickles’ was quoted as warning that “From cradle to grave, Britons are now to be stamped with the EU flag, as Brussels starts interfering in people’s birth, death and marriage.” According to press reports, he saw this as “political agenda to advance the ‘European project’, wipe nation states off the map, and remove the Union Jack and our royal crest from public life.”

This was manna from heaven for the soundbite starved summer news desks. The Daily Mail led the press pack in claiming that the EU emblem would replace the Royal crest on all birth certificates within three years.

Some papers – notably the Times and the Guardian – questioned and criticised this fanciful story and the way it had emerged. But most suggested to their readers that the Commission indeed had powers to impose such crown-removing lèse-majesté on local councils, under the “hated Lisbon Treaty”, as the Sun put it, as if referring to a medieval armistice signed at crossbow point.

The myths that don’t stop

In addition to the above “stories” the summer saw myriad repetitions of longstanding EU myths that now seem to be part of the media furniture.

Perhaps the longest-lived and most general is that EU laws are somehow “Brussels diktats”, a phrase the tabloid media casually tosses it into articles as if it were objective fact. But EU law is not imposed on the UK by faceless bureaucrats. Of course, the real Lisbon Treaty agreed by all Member States, as opposed to the seigneurial fiat evoked by the media over “birth-certificate-gate” (see above), stipulates that the vast majority of Commission proposals only take effect if agreed by – and as amended by – both a simple majority of elected MEPs and a “qualified” (i.e. large) majority of elected national Ministers.

Neither has there been any let up in stories referring glibly to benefit tourism by EU migrants as if such a thing was a given, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that it is widespread. Indeed, all the available research – such as this Institute of Fiscal Studies report – suggests that EU migrants come to the UK to work, tend to leave if they are no longer working and contribute far more to the Exchequer than they take out.

In any case, EU rules are carefully designed to prevent benefit tourism, while allowing Europeans – not least the 1.4 million Brits who live elsewhere in the EU – to benefit from freedom of movement. Previous entries on this blog have set out in detail all the facts on this – which are in black and white in the relevant EU laws, agreed by Member States including the UK.

But EU migrants cannot win with parts of the media, because when they are not being accused of being workshy they are accused of taking British jobs. Again, hard evidence, as in this study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, tends to suggest that this is not in general the case.

Another hardy perennial is that the EU controls an enormous and out of control budget and the UK finances it disproportionately. In fact, as we have repeatedly set out and did so again here, the EU budget is around 1% of EU GDP and – for 28 Member States and about 500 million people – amounts to about a quarter of the size of the UK’s own national public expenditure. The UK’s net contribution to the EU budget is well under 1% of UK public spending and in 2011, it was the sixth highest contribution per capita in the EU. The value of the net contribution is outweighed between five and fifteen times by the benefits of the single market alone, as calculated by the UK government.

Hand-in hand with this goes the canard that the Court of Auditors refuses every year to sign off the EU’s budget and that this is due to profligacy and inadequate financial control in Brussels. The Commission agrees that performance needs to be further improved. But in fact, the 2012 Court of Auditors Report – while certified the accounts accurate for the fifth year running. The auditors blamed the Member States – who manage 80% of EU funds – for the vast majority of errors, with the UK among the five with the most errors found. Strangely, when the Commission interrupted regional fund payments to the UK because of deficiencies in the way the UK was managing payments, the Express seemed to object to the Commission exercising the very same stringent financial control the paper had so often called for.

Some of the above might be seen by some as part of the rough and tumble of UK politics or even mere knockabout red top fun.

Others – even some Eurosceptics who are seeking a genuine debate – may feel that against the background of a possible referendum in the relatively near future on the UK’s EU membership, such a barrage of inaccurate and/or incomplete information risks making it more difficult for the public to make an informed judgement on EU issues.