talkingConsider the banana. You and I both know what a banana looks like, how it should taste, and, generally, how it behaves. We know how to peel a banana and perhaps even know how to cook one. The bananainess of bananas is self-evident, which is why we tend to get irate whenever we hear about plantain-phobic popinjays in the European Union complicating the business of our favourite comedy fruit.

Bananas are one of the reasons that people distrust the EU. I would even argue that bananas are the main reason people distrust the EU but perhaps that is to stretch the point. Bananas are just part of psycho-mythology of the EU that affects our thinking about membership. We get annoyed by stories of over regulation by pencil-pushing Belgians demanding a ban on fruit and vegetables that are too bent.

These things sound trivial but there have been enough of these stories out there to have shaped our opinions. To many people in the UK, continental Europe is filled with petty dictators out to smash our light bulbs and reclassify our chocolate as ‘hydrogenated knee flab’ or some equally unappetising phrase. They are the people who think they understand our cheeses better than we understand our cheeses and who want us to give our money to a Romanian family comprising one bewhiskered patriarch called Petru and his three and a half million urchin children. Surely the whole thing is a contrivance between the French and Germans but particularly the latter who are achieving through red tape what they failed to do with Panzer tanks in 1945…

Well, we are now being given the opportunity to vote on these matters. David Cameron has decided that now is the time to make our choice so here we are: ready to spring as soon as the ballot stations open in June, July, or whenever Boris Johnson makes up his mind. We’ll show those Europeans that we British won’t be fooled with talk of standardised bicycle pumps. No longer will we accept the Spanish trawling our seas up to our estuaries when we can’t even stop them tossing goats from bell towers.

Yet before we go terminating our partnership with Europe, I find myself thinking about the banana. Before I vote to make the leap, I want to be sure that I’m leaping for the right reasons. For me, as I imagine many people, bananas figure somewhere in our thinking. But what exactly do we know about bananas in the context of the European Union?

Well, let’s look at the ‘Commission Regulation (EC) No 2257/94 of 16 September 1994’, the title of which will set your blood pressure soaring and your ears fuming cartoon steam. Even bus numbers don’t look that confusing and there’s nothing in the world more confusing than the numbering of buses. Was there really another 2256 regulations in 1994 before they even got to discussing bananas? What kind of inflated bureaucracy is this?

Regulation 2257/94 is 1,753 words long and it lays down ‘quality standards for bananas’. It aims ‘to ensure that the market is supplied with products of uniform and satisfactory quality, in particular in the case of bananas harvested in the Community, for which efforts to improve quality should be made’. Heady stuff but what, you might ask, about the important matter of the banana’s bend? Well, we’ll get to that.

Most of the regulation states the obvious. At the point of preparation and packaging, ‘bananas must be: green and unripened’. They must also be ‘intact, firm, sound, clean, practically free from pests…’ It goes on to describe what we’d commonly accept as the condition of a banana suitable for sale in a supermarket. It’s the kind of obviousness which I personally don’t mind. I know that if the law didn’t insist on bananas being ‘practically free from pests’ then there would be chancers out there trying to sell us bananas infested with Eritrean lung mites or worse.

It’s only when we get to the classifications of bananas that the subject of bend arises. The ‘extra’ class of banana must be nearly perfect and ‘Class I’ bananas are largely free from blemishes but can have a ‘slight defect in shape’. It’s only ‘Class II’ bananas that can have a full on ‘defect of shape’. None of this, you should note, mentions anything about degrees of bend because — here’s the surprise —  the EU really doesn’t give a Class I fig about how bent our bananas. The regulations are there in order to ensure that we’re not being sold banana mulch laced with ground glass and rusted nails.

Described that way, does 1,753 words seem too much legislation or does it sound succinct given it defines the quality of something we eat? The paperwork only begins to buckle the shelving once you include rules for every other fruit and vegetable, meat and grain. There are rules about climate and culture, media and enterprise, health and energy. There are, in fact, 11,547 regulations and another 62,397 standards. In total, there are 134,500 laws, acts, verdicts and standards in the EU.

To those supporting Brexit, those 134,500 articles represent a burden of regulation, the product of a socialist dream that has produced high taxation and a culture of cash handouts across Europe. They might well be right but I have no idea if they are. I only consider myself an expert in about 1,753 words of EU regulation and, even then, I’m not entirely sure I’d pass a banana exam.

And that is my point. When it comes to the EU, the detail overwhelms us as soon as we try to attempt to understand the whole. I hold no ready facts to mind that can help me decide whether Britain contributes too much or not enough. Even if I had the numbers, I suspect others could give me other numbers that contradict the first. I don’t know what we gain by being a member but neither do I understand what we lose by leaving. And I say all this as somebody who would quite like to know but not if it means my reading 134,000 items of EU legislation.

What I’m really expressing, then, is guilt that I don’t want to put in the effort. I’m shallow and my vote which will be couched in a deep ignorance and prone to the masterful manipulations of the media. Each day I find myself considering only the broadest arguments and how amused I feel having a man called Tusk in the daily news. I also feel myself growing more resentful that the burden to understand the EU question has been placed on those of us least qualified to decide.

There is, I admit, a place for referendums in the democratic system but, surely, they are best left for decisions that go beyond facts, such as deciding on a new flag, an anthem, or the best celebrity ski-lift dance contestant. As it is, the EU question might as well be decided with a flip of a coin because, essentially, that is all we’re now facing: placing the future of the country on cheap luck. It also feels like a total abjuration of the oaths of Prime Minister.

Our greatest politicians are described as ‘leaders’ for a reason. You can probably guess what that reason is but let’s just say that leaders don’t wait for the people to make up their minds about an issue. Leaders act and in acting they decide the course of history. They are judged retrospectively, of course, as to how good or bad a leader they were. It’s why we make judgements about leaders like Churchill, Thatcher or Tony Blair rather than ordinary politicians such as David Cameron. And, yes, Tony Blair was a leader. He just happened to lead us the wrong way and into a war that we now regret. We had no way of knowing how history would unfold had the Middle East discovered democracy. Perhaps Blair might now be considered a leader as great as Churchill or Reagan. That’s just the nature of history and the gamble that all leaders make. Great leaders or bad leaders: they all once led. The worst of them deserve to languish beneath our scorn yet we recognise that they all rode the will of the people into office and then exerted the power we gave them.

The alternative is history decided by referendum, dictated by the whims of personality and on how well one of the two camps plays the game. The forthcoming referendum will be about the quips and the insults, the moments of glory and the instances of shame. It will depend on which side of the question Boris Johnson falls, couched as it already is in the deep machinations of the battle for the Tory leadership. It will depend on how well the grey men of industry can make the economic case for remaining in or leaving the EU, as well as coming down to how stirring the anthems of the nationalists and the sentimental strains of the pro-Europeans. What chance the ‘in’ campaign when the story breaks in the Daily Mail about the migrant who brutally rapes a pensioner? What would normally be a tragic headline for a day might instead haunt our nation for generations to come. Similarly, what chance the ‘out’ campaign if Stephen Fry decides to return to Twitter in a florid display of continental love? The truth is that any decision will be a decision based on something other than the question: is Britain better inside the EU? We have no rational way of deciding and that surely is the problem with this choice we’re being given.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.

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9 Comments on "Is this Referendumb?"

  1. David, there is certainly a lot going to be written about this in the next four months. For me this is a golden opportunity for the British electorate to decide on whether they want to be part of a real democracy and have any semblance of influence on the laws and political and policy decisions which effect their everyday lives or whether they would rather entrust their futures to an unelected group of technocrats over whom they have no say at all.
    The election of Jean Claude Juncker is a case in point. I was never asked if I thought he would make a good president, the people who I did have a chance to vote for – the UK government and most UK MEP’s opposed his appointment and yet there he is, JCJ is president, tough luck people of Britain. If you happen to vote no in a referendum on an EU treaty then your vote won’t count, you will be asked to vote again until you get it right (Ireland) or better still just ignored (France). If the EU doesn’t like the way your economy is being run they will install technocrats to run it for you, to hell with who you elected. With every new treaty and every step taken towards a federated state more power moves to Brussels. It seems strange to me that we are sleepwalking into giving up what so many around the globe are dying in their fight to achieve, democracy. I do sadly expect us to vote to stay in.

    • Emotive words, Rob, and most of them I agree with but really more on an emotional level than their being from a place where I know things are certain. ‘Real democracy’ is an example. What is real about our democracy, when 24% of people vote for a government who get 100% of the power (though, I suppose, your argument is that they have less than that)? Where I live in the North of England, it sometimes feels like Europe cares more about us than Westminster. Sometimes too it feel like my rights are protected more by Europeans and their laws than by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. But is that real or merely emotive arguments I’m repeating from elsewhere? That’s my problem. This argument will not be decided by either you or me arguing here on TW&TW. It will be decided by people who don’t think about these matters beyond whatever meme becomes the most popular.

      I don’t deny that Europe has big problems, which is partly why it’s good that Cameron challenges them with our concerns. Europe has clearly gone wrong in some places, such as the expansion which has caused most of the recent problems by including nations that were economically unfit to join, causing these mass movements of workers and filling our streets with East European beggars. The Eurozone was a stupidity from the start as was the notion of open borders. But do these problems negate the larger advantage of belonging to a large block of nations capable of standing up against China? But does that ‘advantage’ really exist or is it an argument put forward by the pro-European lobby? I like small Europe not big Europe. I like a union of nations but not a federation of nations. But even here I feel like I’m waffling around in political arguments that I hear but don’t really believe. That is my problem. The vote will come down to a vague gut instinct based on an imaginary paradigm in the very same way that many people will simply vote based on images of flags, monarchs, and fish & chips eaten straight from between Churchill’s buttocks just like we used to do before Europe stopped us enjoying ourselves…

      • Our democracy is far from perfect but a lot of that is down to how we as voters use the system we have. We all have constituency MP’s who come election time rely on our votes to get elected, if as little as 5000-10000 of us got together to lobby on any given issue we could influence the way that MP votes during their tenure as this will be the difference between re-election and second place. That most people can’t even be arsed to write a letter to their MP isn’t the fault of the electoral system, nor is the sad reality that 30 per cent of the population can’t be bothered to vote at all. However in theory at least we can influence policy, with our membership of the EU even if every single person in Britain voted the same way it wouldn’t make an iota of difference and that worries me. I agree with you about a lot of EU laws protecting us, I think that eastern european workers do a grand job generally and I actually used to be quite pro european until I started to see the EU starting to subvert democracy around the time of the Lisbon Treaty and continue throughout the financial crisis. I do pretty well in a UK in the EU but I still really hope we vote to leave. Perhaps there is a bit of idealism still alive in me after all, who’d have thought it. One last thing, I do think that if we do leave that consequences will be on the harsher side of projections. It will be imperative to the European project that the UK is not seen to succeed outside of the EU, I don’t think we will get to sign an associate agreement as easily as the Eurosceptics make out.

        • Agreed. Politics/democracy suffer from the changing nature of society. Politics no longer means people feeling that their vote affects their surroundings and, in that sense, belonging to Europe is another abstraction. I have some idealism about our being out of Europe but I can’t discount the fact that I think it would be a disaster. I genuinely get cold shivers at the thought of IDS deciding matters. Yet being in Europe worries me too… Yes, East Europeans might do a wonderful job but I can only speak as I perceive the world and it seems quite crazy having people travelling across a continent to drive buses, as we have locally where every bus driver seems to be Polish. Maybe that’s just my little Englander speaking, as I’m sure we all have one. You see how baffled I am by all of this and, perhaps, why I lean towards ‘in’? I’m convinced that referendums are a bad idea. It sometimes feels as though Cameron is giving us this chance so we can do the irrational thing that he himself could never justify. That said: I have months of agonizing over this and I will agonize.

  2. Thanks for this article it is something close to my heart . Like Rob I am something of a Euro-Sceptic but I do want to be convinced by facts not emotion. As David rightly says the detail overwhelms me and I find myself listening to politicians who use sound bites and emotive language that does not help me make up my mind. I feel that it is wrong for Turkey that only has around 3% of its land mass to be allowed to join the EU but is this just an emotional or reasoned response? I believe in the sovereignty of a parliament I elect to be of paramount importance but concede there are some European laws that are good. I suspect most when it comes to a vote will do so out of self-interest but will not be bothered about any in depth arguments. Will people go for the status quo thinking leaving the EU is leaping into the unknown a bit like some who in Scotland who voted against Independence? So yes we have no rational way of deciding and I guess all the rhetoric over the next 4 months will not make the decision any clearer.

    • I think it’s very reasonable to be opposed to Turkey’s membership and I think the current debacle with Russia proves it. Europe has got a bit like the Eurovision song contest when they invite Australia to take part. I never had a problem with the old small Europe but I do have many doubts about big Europe, the Europe of nations who economies weren’t at a level that made their joining sensible. Yet I also feel like the leap would be a big one and very different to the one that Scotland would have taken if they’d chosen independence. Scotland would have left the UK to join Europe. We’d be leaving Europe to stand on our own. If we don’t get eaten up by China in the next few years, in a decade or so we’d end up starting our own trading group and the whole bloody thing will start again…

      All I can say, Paul, is that we shouldn’t be too nervous because we won’t be tipping the decision one way or the other. We might spend hours and hours reading around the subject but rest assured that we’ll be outvoted by some kids who vote because somebody in One Direction tells them to vote. Sadly, I think that ignorance will be the order of the day.

  3. I like your analogy with the European song contest David .The EU does now seem a club where anyone is entitled to join whatever there geographical location and for sure some will vote one way only because a famous musician, actor or minor celebrity says so. I am not sure if you watched Question time last night on the topic and once again as one of the panel members remarked the debate was very much about the Politics of fear. Broadcaster June Sarpong who I had never heard of, pulled out the figure of 3 million pounds that we would lose if we left the EU and was challenged where she got the figure, from former Dragons Den Businessman Theo Paphitis and she said the figures were from the Conservative Party! For me he made the most sense of all the panel. He said he could not decide one way or the other as he felt he did not have enough facts and that the current negotiations by Cameron were a Pantomime. Even if Cameron were to get some sort of deal how much is it worth? As someone said today what happens when a Migrant challenges in court the fact his payments are not the same as the rest of Europe? What happens when the European Court is faced with challenges? I do not see what ever deal he comes back with will in the long term make any difference as we are one of 28 and if in 2 years for example the rest of the EU want Turkey to join it will happen. I agree with your earlier point for all intents and purposes we might as well decide on a flip of a coin.

  4. I do not think the issue is the straightness of the Banana, but our view that Continental Europeans are in fact not very good Europeans, and it really isn’t a dislike of the British, but we see a deeply set distrust of anything foreign a belief that it is somehow inferior, wrong, should be ignored or circumvented.
    My favourite example is the purchasing of cars; if you go to Germany you will see the brands of BMW, Mercedes, VW and Audi. Cross the border to France and there is an instant change to Peugeot, Renault and Citron. Hop over the Alps to Italy to see Fiats everywhere and in Spain it is Seat; even though it is owned by VW. This is important, although the UK doesn’t have a car brand anymore, we do manufacture a lot of European brands and car parts. European companies do buy from us as they are generally driven by commercial reasons more than nationalism. There are other issues, who cannot forget European decision regarding Dr Ubani, the anti Dyson wattage measuring debacle, the dubious use of the European Arrest Warrant and the way the various European Nation side step the whole prisoners vote question, to name but a few.
    Ultimately it is these decisions that make the EU looked closed nationalistic and inward looking; make people in the UK want to leave. Look at these two news stories; President Hollande asks his nation to buy French http://goo.gl/nKURXa – compared with British MPs ask the UK to buy French to support Paris in a difficult times http://goo.gl/xHeG7c.
    Is this it, after all of these years will Continently Europe fall back into it old nationalistic ways with one despot trumping another, is there no hope. Have we the British failed to get across our global outlook, have we failed to get the European to free themselves from their nationalistic shackles, well yes. Should we just give up, to coin a phrase from our American cousins, “hell no!”

    • Thanks Alex. Interesting way of posing it: that the failure of the European Union is a failure of Europeans to enter into the spirit of the deal… I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, though I wrote something last week that argued that the failure of Europe might be the same failure we see in the Eurovision [LINK]. In that sense, I suppose you’re right. I would agree that Europe tends to highlight divisions rather than unity and this is largely caused when Europe expanded to nations that share very different cultures. Of course, it’s most obvious when poor nations enter Europe and then you have an economic migration which shouldn’t surprise anybody but seemed to surprise everybody. The alternative would, I think, risk nationalisms rising, though, in truth, they rise when people grow dissatisfied with Europe. I guess that most people would support that position which was attributed to Boris before he dismissed it: stay in Europe but a very different Europe than the one currently trying to become a superstate. Myself, I’m becoming less convinced by Brexit by the day and I just feel that this is really the very worst time a PM could choose to take this matter to the nation.

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