Merde in europe, p.24
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       Merde in Europe, p.24

           Stephen Clarke
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  The first scooter overtook the lead Breton, who had stopped to see what the fuss was about, before screeching – or purring anyway – to a halt in front of a TV camera. A white-haired lady with rosy cheeks and a backwards baseball cap blinked into the lights. A microphone was held out towards her for comment.

  ‘Excuse me, dear, where’s the nearest loo?’ she asked.

  Before anyone could answer, a second scooter pulled up. Another elderly lady beckoned for the microphone and waited for the cameras to focus on her.

  ‘We’re all British citizens who’ve been living in France,’ she said, in a slightly wavering voice, ‘but now we’re coming home. If Britain votes “no” and leaves the EU, all of us British pensioners living abroad will lose our automatic right to free medical care on the continent. So here we are, back home again. Can anyone tell me where to sign up for a GP?’

  The lady who needed the loo butted in: ‘Oh yes, and my husband George needs his pacemaker resetting. He says it’s because of the one-hour time difference. Where’s the nearest A&E?’

  More scooters were arriving.

  An old guy wearing a fleece over his sweatshirt called out, ‘It’s bloody freezing here in England. How do I claim heating allowance?’

  A frail-looking lady with her sweatshirt on backwards hobbled off her scooter and grabbed a reporter’s sleeve. The camera focused on her eagerly smiling face.

  ‘Are you my husband?’ she asked him. ‘What’s my name?’

  I joined in the round of spontaneous applause from the bar crowd that greeted this performance.

  Unlike almost everyone in the room except Manon, I knew that it really was a performance. It was English Peter’s idea. He’d told me that his mother was a retired actress who lived most of the year in Normandy. There, he said, she had started up an expat pensioners’ theatre group. And they would probably be more than happy to put on a travelling show for me.

  It had taken a few Skypes, an express delivery of printed hats and sweatshirts, and a costly but effective bit of haggling between Manon and a French medical-supply company, but we’d got everyone and their scooters to Cherbourg in time for the ferry.

  Now our OAP actors were really getting into the swing of things. One of the guys was mooning a large white backside at the camera, demanding his daily insulin shot. A woman was complaining that she’d just been molested by a Breton farmer and wanted round-the-clock police protection.

  ‘Tell Mrs Thatcher I voted for her!’ she yelled, and then lunged at the nearest Frenchman.

  The lady who’d asked for the loo came back into shot.

  ‘If you vote “no”, we’re all coming home. And there are millions more Brits on the continent, just like us,’ she warned, and then winked to camera.

  Suddenly Manon and I were enveloped as a grinning Peter, sagely nodding Ed, drunk Danny, cool Gustav with his arm around Šárka, and hands-on Jake – who’s always up for a group hug – closed in to congratulate us. The only ones to stay aloof were the Italian guy and the Austro-Hungarian woman, who were standing almost nose-to-nose, no doubt plotting the Austrian annexation of Tuscany, or vice versa.

  In the crush, it was only natural that Manon and I got closer than ever.

  ‘So do you think that’s a definitive oui?’ Jake asked, when we’d all moved apart a little. Apart from Manon and myself, that is.

  ‘Impossible to tell,’ I said. ‘The polls are too . . .’ I looked up at the screen, and the percentages had disappeared. It had to be midnight. No more opinion polls. At bloody last.

  ‘At least the British voters know everything now,’ Manon said.

  ‘Yes, people will decide for themselves in the morning,’ I said. ‘Time to sleep on it.’

  I raised an eyebrow at Manon. She smiled.

  ‘Hey, man, you’re not really going to sleep?’ This was Jake, of course. ‘Allez, Paul, look at Manon – even you can see that she is totally desesper . . . uh, deseprest, uh . . .’

  I dragged Manon away before Jake could finish dispensing his own brand of relationship therapy.

  By common consent, Manon and I stopped on the threshold of the café, hand-in-hand, to look back at the scene we were leaving, the scene we had helped to create.

  The TV screen was rerunning the mobility-scooter display, and a whole bar full of semi-drunk Brussels badge people were cheering the OAPs’ invasion.

  I wondered why the eurocrats cared so much. Whichever way the vote went in the morning, the Plux crowd’s jobs were all pretty secure. Maybe the British civil servants’ careers would be slowed down by a ‘no’ vote, but the other nationalities of Brussels eurocrat were more or less assured of a stable, well-paid future.

  Even so, they didn’t look the least bit complacent about Europe, or their place in it. They really did care. They were cheering for their team. They believed in Brussels. It was strangely touching.

  ‘Allez, Paul!’ Manon was tugging at my hand. ‘You should listen to your friend Jake. Three months is a very long time for a girl to wait.’

  She was right. From here on, the EU could solve its own merde, zut, cacarella, kao’ch, kaka, mokordo, and all the other ways it has of describing its troubles.

  I had a purely personal European union to forge.

  And a French-subsidised bed in which to forge it.

  Fin / End / Einde

  De: Paul West

  À: Elodie Martin

  Sujet: Silly Euro Rumours

  Bonjour Elodie,

  Here is my top 20 (or so) of the insane rumours put about by the British press, with the explanation as to why each one is revr a strouilh, which of course means ‘a pig’s anus’ in Breton – the only part of a pig not eaten by the Bretons, and therefore apparently used as a term meaning a complete waste of time and space. But I’m sure you knew that.

  1 ‘Euro banknotes can make men impotent’

  This story emerged in 2002 after a German magazine tested a ten-euro note and found traces in the paper of a stabiliser called Tributyltin. One of its side-effects can be impotence.

  However, the same laboratory that carried out the tests for the magazine admitted that, in order to suffer any problems, a man would have to handle thousands of euro notes per day, over a prolonged period of time.

  This didn’t stop one British paper digging up a German called Wolfgang Fritz (convincing German name, nicht?), who said that he hadn’t been able to achieve an erection since the euro was introduced.

  And we all thought that the euro had triggered inflation.

  2 ‘Brussels to force farmers to give toys to pigs’

  There is in fact a European law that orders pig farmers to provide their animals with distractions in their pens. This is because pigs naturally snuffle about and would harm themselves, or attack other pigs, if they could not do so. Apparently, frustrated pigs often go in for ‘tail-biting’ (and that’s not a crude joke).

  European farmers are therefore obliged to provide all pigs kept in enclosed pens with ‘manipulable material’. But this does not usually include toys. It is more likely to be hay, straw, sawdust, sand, peat, earth or compost.

  The ‘toy’ rumour came from suggestions that pigs can also alleviate boredom by chewing on lumps of wood or plastic suspended from the ceiling. Not exactly the same thing as buying them dolls or tricycles.

  (Elodie: You might want to explain to your Breton constituents that they don’t need to buy actual toys for their farm animals, in case any of them are ordering pétanque balls or trying to make their PlayStations hoof-compatible.)

  3 ‘EU to ban singing in pubs’

  This story emerged in 2002, when the EU announced that it was looking into ways of protecting workers from excessive noise. The maximum safe volume during an 8-hour day was set at 87 decibels, which is roughly equivalent to standing near a motorbike with its engine running.

  The EU directive was intended to force employers to offer workers ear-protection if their working environment involved high noise levels. However, thi
s perfectly reasonable measure inspired a whole rash of absurd press stories.

  A football crowd, for example, can easily generate more than 100 decibels, and some newspapers suggested that players would have to wear earplugs, and would therefore not be able to hear the referee’s whistle.

  It was even said that orchestras would not be able to play loud classical pieces, such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (which, of course, contains Europe’s anthem, the ‘Ode to Joy’).

  According to one of these scare stories, English pubs would have to ban singing during World Cup football matches in case the bar staff were subjected to excessive noise levels. The sad fact was that, as usual, English fans had little to sing about during the 2004 World Cup.

  4 ‘According to the EU’s animal waste directive, it is illegal to bury dead pets unless you have pressure-cooked them at 130°C for half an hour’

  This story, which emerged in 2000, came out of nowhere. It seemed to refer back to the EU’s 1992 Animal Waste Directive, which was part of a larger plan to prevent pollution of the environment from the disposal of all types of waste.

  During the BSE scare, many infected animals were simply buried or burnt in the open air, which posed a potential health risk. The Animal Waste Directive stipulated that carcasses had to be disposed of using adequately equipped, government-approved incinerators.

  This ruling did not include domestic animals – unless, of course, your pet died of mad-cow disease. And no one mentioned pressure-cooking them, which would be just plain impractical.

  The story was a straight bit of euro-bashing. The writer might just as well have said that all half-eaten kebabs found dumped in the street would have to be fed into a nuclear reactor. Which might not be a bad idea.

  5 ‘EU to ban Scottish bagpipes’

  This was simply a five-year update of the rule mentioned in item 3 – in theory, if for some reason you invited a pipe band to play for 8 hours in a workplace, you would be breaking European health-and-safety laws.

  It was also an attempt to turn the Scots, who actually seem to like the EU, against Brussels.

  Though, of course, by banning the Scottish howling octopus, there was also the danger of making some English people look favourably upon EU lawmakers.

  6 ‘Brussels will give in to French pressure and force Britain to rename Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square’

  As we all know, Waterloo Station has long been a French bête noire, especially since it was chosen as the initial London terminus for Eurostar.

  (Elodie: Didn’t I hear your patriotic colleague Yves Remord call it ‘la gare sans nom’ – the station that shall remain nameless? I’m not sure he was joking.)

  The reports published in the British press saying that Europe was going to force a name-change for Waterloo and Trafalgar Square were nonsense, based simply on an offhand comment by the head of the European Investment Fund, an Oxford-educated economist called Francis Carpenter. He seems to have gone native and expressed his opinion that the French probably find these names irritating.

  But most rational people accept that you can’t just get rid of everything that irritates the French – otherwise Belgium, for example, would disappear.

  7 ‘Smoky-bacon crisps to be banned by Brussels’

  It is true that in 2003 Europe adopted new rules concerning the types of smoke-flavouring used in food. It tested different smoke-flavourings, most of which are made of ‘smoke condensates’, to check that none of them contained harmful chemicals.

  But no one suggested banning smoky-bacon crisps, smoked salmon or anything similar – unless, of course, they were made with a smoke-flavouring that had been distilled from, say, the emissions from one of the waste incinerators mentioned in item 4 above. In which case, consumers might well have approved of the ban.

  (Elodie: I’m sure your dad uses safe sources for his smoked-meat products, right?)

  8 ‘Brussels rules that oysters must be given rest breaks during transport to market’

  This is another piece of comical over-interpretation. Of course quite often these British reports are deliberately humorous, to show us how absurdly anal Europe’s lawmakers are.

  This story, which also suggested that mussels, whelks and other shellfish might enjoy a quick stop in a lay-by on their way to market, was based on the detailed EU laws governing the transport of live animals. These include rules on the ventilation of trucks, provision of food and water during long journeys, the number of animals carried per cubic metre of trailer space, and even the age of the animals that can be transported (for example, calves less than ten days old cannot be transported more than 100 kilometres, which seems quite a long journey for baby animals without their mums).

  There are rules on carrying shellfish, but these mainly involve refrigeration, which most Europeans would probably find advisable.

  (Elodie: Rumours that the Brits really want to have oyster sales banned are not true. Yet.)

  9 ‘Kilts to be re-defined as women’s wear’

  This was clearly another attempt, like item 5 above, to turn the Scots off the EU. But for once it was based on a genuine EU balls-up.

  In 2003 the European statistics agency, Eurostat, published a form asking clothes manufacturers about the types of garments they sold. There was no space on the form allotted to the kilt. When a kilt manufacturer questioned this, he was told to record kilt sales in the ‘women’s apparel’ section.

  After an outcry in the Scottish press, including of course a quote from Sean Connery, the forms were amended.

  The only detail the papers got wrong was that the European forms were actually vetted and sent out by Britain’s own Office of National Statistics. And it was an ONS employee who told the kilt manufacturer where to record his sales. Not Brussels’ fault at all.

  Incidentally, the quote from Sean Connery included the interesting line: ‘I have been wearing a woman’s skirt for more than 45 years.’

  (Elodie: That quote is just a bit of fun for the journalists, designed to cause a stir. The full quote was: ‘If this is the case, I have been wearing a woman’s skirt for more than 45 years.’)

  10 ‘Brussels will force lorry drivers to eat muesli’

  The EU laws governing the health, training and safety of professional drivers came into force in 2003. Not surprisingly, they did not specify what British truck drivers should eat for breakfast.

  They did warn against the combination of an unhealthy diet and a sedentary job, and suggested that sleepiness at the wheel after a heavy meal might be dangerous for drivers of vehicles weighing several tons.

  But then a headline about the EU simply trying to get truck drivers to stay alive might not have been quite so eye-catching.

  11 ‘According to a new EU law, the Queen will have to fetch her own cup of tea’

  Yet another masterful piece of journalistic embroidery of the facts. It could also have read, ‘The Pontiff will have to drive his own Popemobile’ or ‘The President of France will be forced to nip out for croissants.’

  This was all about the Working Time Directive, which gives EU citizens the right to a maximum working week of 48 hours. A reporter managed to find a Buckingham Palace servant who agreed that, if his 48 hours were up, he might not be legally required to fetch a royal cuppa.

  In reality, of course, staffing levels in royal palaces rarely reach the critical stage at which a member of the royal family would be forced to phone out for a takeaway.

  (Elodie: Didn’t the French President actually nip out for croissants recently, and take them to his mistress, who was waiting in their love nest? If so, you might want to cut out the above reference. We don’t want to put your Légion d’honneur at risk.)

  12 ‘Brussels wants to ban British barmaids’ cleavage’

  Again, employee protection is taken to its absurd limit. The EU does require employers to assess the potential dangers to their staff of working for long periods in the sun, and advises the use of sun cream, hats and sunglasses. But it does no
t ban low-cut tops for barmaids.

  The encouraging aspect to this story was that one article in the British press lamented the possible demise of the low-cut dirndl blouses worn by Bavarian barmaids at the Oktoberfest. A nice bit of cross-European solidarity.

  (Elodie: If you’re not sure what a dirndl top looks like, Jake has some photos.)

  13 ‘EU to force British fish-and-chip shops to use Latin names for fish’

  This rumour first emerged in the late 1990s, along with stories about putting the Latin names for nuts and other foodstuffs on labels.

  It started out with EU directives requiring food and cosmetics manufacturers to list all potentially allergenic ingredients on their packaging, if they wanted to export. To make these lists understandable across the whole of Europe, some kind of standardisation of the names was suggested, possibly involving Latin. Though of course translation into the different European languages of the names for all nuts and allergenic ingredients was said to be preferable.

  This Latin scare migrated over to the fish world when the EU called for more detailed labelling on pre-prepared fish products. The exact species of fish would have to be given – ‘fingers’ was no longer going to be detailed enough.

  Some witty journalist implied that this might involve the Latin genus names and, hey presto, a fishy story was served up in newspaper.

  (Elodie: That last line is a joke about the way fish & chips used to be served in Britain. I thought you might like it, given that you think our food usually tastes like old paper and ink.)

  14 ‘God Save the Queen must be sung in all immigrant languages’

  This is – to use the technical journalistic term – total balls. Pure scaremongering.

  Anthems are, as we know, touchy subjects. There was a kerfuffle about the EU’s own anthem, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, in 2004 when an Austrian called Peter Roland wrote some new lyrics for the song. These included a line about ‘freedom for Europe’s people in a bigger motherland’, which was lambasted in the British press for its apparently Nazi/Soviet overtones. But in fact these new words were merely Herr Roland’s brainchild and have not been adopted as the official lyrics to Europe’s anthem.

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