In July 2003, British papers reported on the latest outrageous regulation imposed on the country by the European Union. Tightrope walkers and other acrobats performing with a circus touring Britain would now be required to don hard hats while flipping through the air in their routines.
“It is bureaucracy gone mad," the Telegraph quoted the circus’s general manager as saying. "This is just another loony law from Brussels and we are the only country stupid enough to pay any attention."
The problem with the report? The European Union had passed no such law, as the European Commission, the bloc's executive body, later clarified on its website. A law had been introduced to protect workers who operate at heights, the commission said, “but there is no mention of hard hats or circus performers in these rules. Any newspapers, employers or insurers who are interpreting the legislation in such a manner are acting mistakenly.”
The story is just one example of many “Euromyths” that have proliferated in Britain over the past two decades — seemingly silly stories that depict an excessive bureaucracy in Brussels bent on ruining any kind of local amusement or tradition.
Other such stories play on Britain's ambivalence toward the European Union, picturing rule-makers as fun-hating paper pushers determined to crack down on everything uniquely British — including mushy peas, double-decker buses, corgis and mince pies. Some seem designed to hurt British pride — for example, that new regulations would force the queen to make her own tea or classify kilts as women’s wear.
Clearly, many of these claims were simply tales dreamed up by the tabloids to grab the attention of readers. But some garnered much more public attention. London former mayor Boris Johnson — who led the charge to leave the European Union and could be a candidate for prime minister — has been known to repeat several of these myths.
Johnson, who previously said the E.U. was “acting like Hitler” in attempting to create a superstate, has erroneously warned his compatriots of a “great war against the British prawn-flavour cocktail crisp” for more than 15 years. He has also criticized the E.U. for telling Britain what shape its bananas should be — when actually rules used all around the world separate bananas into different sizes and qualities for international trade.
Even when these stories are exaggerations, they reflect a more serious debate in Britain about whether its E.U. membership has subjected it to excessive regulation. Kilts and mushy peas aside, one common reason given for why Britain should vote to leave the European Union is to escape its red tape and bureaucracy, which many think have weighed on the British economy.
As a member of Europe’s common market and customs union, Britain has adopted many of the same regulations as other European countries, including consumer protections and labor laws. And some of these rules have been costly. A 2009 study by Open Europe, a business-oriented think tank that advocates a more flexible E.U., showed that the cumulative cost of regulations introduced in Britain between 1998 and 2008 was 148.2 billion pounds, nearly three-quarters of which was driven by E.U. mandates. And the annual cost has been going up in recent years.
But while Brexiters think these regulations have been clamping down on the growth of the British economy, there's also evidence that the regulations have not been as damaging as they may seem.
As the Economist has pointed out, strong foreign direct investment in Britain suggests that the global business community does not see Britain as excessively regulated. And Britain still ranks highly on international scales that penalize onerous regulation — coming in sixth in the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business ranking, one notch head of the United States, and tenth in a ranking of global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum. (In addition, in the latter list, other E.U. member countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, rank higher than Britain.)
Perhaps more importantly, a British exit from the European Union does not mean these regulations will go away.
Many E.U. rules have been incorporated into British law and would require an act of Parliament to change, according to a recent report by Open Europe. The report estimates that while “a very liberally inclined UK government could in theory" reduce burdensome regulations enough to boost the British economy by 0.7-1.3 percent, Britain is likely to keep many of the E.U. rules — for example its rules on climate change. That's because decisions about whether to scrap certain rules and regulations, like environmental protections and labor laws, could face opposition from certain trade unions, NGOs and voters.
Other regulations are the standard stuff of trade and customs agreements, which can require reams of language to negotiate. If Britain wants to sell into the E.U.’s common market, it might still have to follow a lot of rules in regard to how products are produced and sold. And if it forges new free-trade agreements with countries such as the United States and China, as many supporters of Brexit have advocated, expect rules on how to categorize the size and shape of Britain's bananas to follow.