British think twice about EC ties
Eddie, of Eddie's Grocery Store on London Road in North Cheam, Surrey, has changed his mind about Europe -- and he reflects the thoughts of many other workingmen in this island country.
"I voted for us to join the Common Market in 1972," he said, vigorously polishing an apple. "Good idea, joining with others, instead of being on our own.
"But I'd vote against our membership today." He looked down at the apple in his hand. "What right have those people in Brussels to tell us what to do? All those French apples coming here, and when we want to sell lamb in France, the French say no."
But a successful businessmen in a London suburb sees it differently:
"We have to be in Europe," he says, "even though we are an insular and independent people. We are in and we'll stay in -- although we'd really rather like integration to take as long as possible, you know."
These two views of Europe reflect divisions in British society which have generated new controversy recently over British policies. The Common Market (or European Community) continues to have a poor public image in Britain -- on that point most people seem to unite. It is seen as a remote, faceless, expensive bureaucracy, and undemocratic as well (in that Brussels commissioners are not elected).
In recent days, british apple growers have announced plans to fight back against the invasion of the French "Golden Delicious" brand. British onion- tenders have proudly unveiled a new "super-onion" to compete with the French variety.
The popular British press has pounced gleefully on first-class air fares and other expenses of members of the European Parliament. Thirty-six of them spent L250,000 ($600,000) to visit South America, sources in Brussels reported. In all, L5.5 million ($13.2 million) was said to have been set aside for Euro-MPs from 10 countries to make 16 fact-finding missions this year.
British businessmen have complained about a flood of EC rules designed to bring community-wide practices intoharmony, and a remarkable new opinion poll by the consumer association "which?" has highlighted British ignorance, and fear, of the EC.
According to a spokesman, the survey covered 1,012 members of the association itself (out of 2,000 questionaires mailed out) and 933 nonmember families interviewed at home.
Only 5 percent could name their local member of the European Parliament; only two people had actually tried to contact him. (Only 32 percent of them voted in 1979 for elections to the European Parliament itself).
Fifty-six percent said British should "never have joined in the first place." More than half thought Britain spent more money on the EC than on social security (in fact, EC spending takes L1.1 billion [$2.64 billion] a year, seventh on the list of major British budget items and way below social security, which absorbs L18.5 billion [$44.4 billion]).
Only 8 percent could identify all nine (now 10) EC members. Half thought EC membership had pushed Britain's food prices up by 50 percent or more. ("Which?" said the actual figure was between 8 and 12 percent.)
Most thought it obviously wrong to state that inspectors will have to count every bather on British beaches under EC rules -- but in fact, such a count will have to be made to comply with new health and safety standards.
A minority knew the EC was working on ways to conserve energy and help consumers. Fifty-eight percent would leave the EC now (though among "Which?" members, the figure was only 32 percent.
I tried the questions on a British journalist and a businessman. Neither could answer even half.
The poll showed the poorer the respondent, and the farther north he lived, the more anti- Europe he was. Only 13 percent of people in Scotland approved of the EC.
The Europe issue has also helped widen the current split in the opposition Labour Party. The party voted in Blackpool last year to leave the Community when Labour returns to power, and a group of moderates is setting up its own social democratic party partly because it believes Britain must stay in.
The antimarket argument is that Britain has no place in a scheme designed to help French agriculture and German industry -- that Britain has to pay more for food, contribute large amounts to Brussels, and suffer bureaucratic "interference."
Pro-marketeers agree with some of these points, and also agree that Britain joined (in 1973) at a poor time. Inflation was rising, fuel costs skyrocketing, and British industry's decline worsening.
But they argue that the real issue is broadly political. Britain must be part of a wider world. It must give West Germany another ally besides the unpredictable French. It must help stand firm against Moscow and search for realistic disarmament. Without EC membership, Britain ran the risk of an even smaller world role. As British industry became more efficient, and North Sea oil revenue came in, the country could better afford its EC contributions.
Meanwhile, headlines here tell of new clashes coming between the British government on the one hand and France and West Germany on the other. Ostensibly over fishing and farm policies. they actually reflect the conservative government's determination not to be dictated to by Paris and Bonn. At risk, however, is the complex deal under which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gained rebates of L1.5 billion ($3.6 billion) from the EC budget last year. A farm and fishing impasse could render that deal inoperative.