Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 7 News List

EU fears spawn fantastical myths

TALL TALES For many people, EU membership is a strange new concept and rumors about change get exaggerated to the point of the utterly absurd


In the imaginary world of exaggerated EU excesses, pigs have to be given toys to play with, trawlers must carry at least 200 condoms when they set to sea, and rudely-shaped cucumbers are banned from public sale.

The EU's legendary complexity and labyrinthian red-tape have spawned a wealth of urban myths among the peoples of candidate countries queuing up to join the 15-nation bloc in the coming years.

The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that the Polish press agency PAP has even launched a service to collect and debunk the wildest stories doing the rounds of the cafes and bars in eastern Europe where a series of referendums are being organised on EU membership.

In Poland, fishermen fear that once their country joins the EU they will have to wear hairnets at sea -- very unmanly. In Hungary, milk lovers are worried full-cream milk is going to disappear off the shelves. While Czechs are afraid their favourite stinky cheeses will be banned once they join the EU in 2004.

These word-of-mouth whispers have even been lent credence by being repeated by some of the more sensationalist media.

TV Nova, the main Czech private station, recently ran a story alleging the EU had ordered pig farmers to provide their livestock with toys to stop them getting bored in their pens.

The affair was so blown out of proportion that the European Commission representative in Prague was forced to issue a formal denial to explain that the EU had only laid down new standards for keeping livestock.

It's true that at times European legislation appears nightmarish, reaching unparalleled heights of bureaucratese, but the mounting myths grotesquely distort reality to the point of absurdity.

Sometimes such myths are nothing more than recycled rumours peddled by eurosceptic British tabloids such as The Sun, which in 1998 came up with the story that all cucumbers could have to meet strict "linear" rules in order not to offend a prudish public.

"People are voicing their fear of change through all this, their fear of a loss of identity," said Jean-Bruno Renard, a French sociology professor and a specialist in urban myths. "The rumours are very conservative."

Abruptly thrust into the market economy after decades of communism, the citizens in the most vulnerable eastern European countries have often lost their bearings. Even though most people are in favour of joining the EU, actual membership would herald even further changes and thus raises many fears.

The questions asked on free telephone lines set up to answer concerns ahead of referenda on EU membership testify to the level of concern and disinformation.

"I have an old Skoda which isn't fitted with a catalyser. Will I be able to keep it," asked one Slovak driver.

One caller wanted to know how many carrots he would be allowed to grow once the EU has expanded to include 25 countries.

Perhaps what underlies all these fears, is the biggest myth of all -- that the true aim of enlargement is the colonisation of eastern Europe by Brussels to line the pockets of the big multinationals.

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