Consider 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.