Every step the European Union takes towards integration triggers a fresh wave of Euro-myths-fishermen forced to wear hairnets, bananas made straight, double-decker buses banned. Such stories are talked up by anti-Europeans and believed by many anxious citizens. Sometimes they are even true. Sarah Helm follows the story of chocolate harmonisationby Sarah Helm / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
High in an office block, somewhere in Brussels, I am thinking about chocolate. I am thinking about Dairy Milk, about C?te d’Or and about Mini Cha Cha bars, and wondering if my chocolate is the same as your chocolate. The European Union officials I am visiting are also thinking about chocolate. But for them it is not the delicious melting brown stuff; it is a delicate subject always threatening to heap ridicule on the EU bureaucracy.
For I am investigating Euro-mythology. Euro-myths are fantastical stories which are spread-so it is said-by those scheming to undermine the European project. Here at the European commission’s Directorate General 10 (communication, information, culture, means of communication, audiovisual, and support services for the media) officials are fighting back, attempting to put the record straight for European citizens.
As if monitoring a plague, DG10 has set up a “rapid reply service” to try to scotch every myth as it breaks. “We aim to respond within 24 hours,” says the official in charge. He picks a crisp card from the top of a neatly stacked pile and puts it under my nose. Lindsay Armstrong, Media Support, it says. He then produces a fax reporting a worrying new outbreak of the chocolate Euro-myth, during a television debate in Paris this very morning. According to this myth-one of the most virulent DG 10 has ever had to fight-the commission may revive its plans to call British chocolate “vegolate”-because it does not contain sufficient cocoa fat. “You know the issue, I suppose,” he says, citing Directive 73-241 EEC 1973, on harmonisation of chocolate recipes.
Christine Verger, head of the commission’s French office, has reported to the rapid reply service that this particular myth is being revived as part of a new chocolate war between France and Britain. Both sides fear the worst from a plan to revise the original chocolate directive. The Club des Croques du Chocolat in Paris claims that France will be infiltrated by even more inferior British chocolate. British manufacturers counter that the new directive could mean that the “vegolate” threat is back.
“Katya Urgent” is scribbled on the fax from Paris. “Urgent” is underlined, and Katya Delranc, one of Armstrong’s assistants, has been dispatched to establish the truth. Along the beige corridors others are trying to do the same, telephoning officials in other DGs, or standing at whirring photocopiers which spew copies of directives and press releases.
Armstrong gives me a guidebook to Euro-mythology, entitled: “Do you still believe all you read in the newspapers?” Euro-myths have become part of the diet of everyday life, says the book. Myths such as: “Brussels forces fishermen to wear hairnets” or “Brussels to ban prawn cocktail crisps” are all part of a deliberate policy to undermine the whole process of European integration. Myths like these are spun by Euro-sceptics and taken up in the Euro-sceptical press. The danger is (says the guidebook) that the myths become accepted as true. It is all a “mass self-deception, resulting from a resistance to change.”
But can Euro-mythology be so easily dismissed? The phenomenon is particularly rife in Britain, where Euro-scepticism is strongest. But are the myths themselves responsible for this scepticism, or are they the result of already existing scepticism-a symptom of deeply rooted suspicion of what Brussels is doing? Euro-mythology spreads fastest whenever Brussels is about to launch a new programme of integration. Countless myths were spun ahead of the Single European Act and just before the signing of the Maastricht treaty in 1992. Mythology is flourishing again (witness the stories about compulsory rest periods for shell fish or banning double-decker buses) as Europe prepares for monetary union and for the intergovernmental conference (IGC) on reform of European institutions.
Katya returns to say that she is having difficulty getting at the truth on the chocolate myth; the “rapid reply” might have to wait. She has been told by the relevant experts that the question is “sensitive” and “politically contentious.” “There are grey areas,” she admits.
“Could the myth actually be true?” I ask. “Sometimes the myths are true,” Armstrong interjects swiftly. “I would say, at the moment, chocolate is an issue, not a myth. But this directive has resulted in myths in the past, and has the potential to provoke lots more myths, so we have to watch out.”
The most persistent Euro-myths are spun out of European legislation that might directly affect peoples’ lives, or where integration appears to threaten a nation’s jealously guarded cultural and social traditions. No cultural tradition-except perhaps language (which Brussels hardly dares to touch)-is so deeply rooted as a nation’s own cuisine.
Taste-like language-is acquired in childhood at the family table. If Euro-myths indicate a resistance to change, it is hardly surprising that a whole body of mythology has developed around attempts to harmonise food: bananas to be straightened, strawberries to be made square, mushy peas to be unmushed, Caerphilly cheese to be banned-and chocolate to become vegolate.
The vegolate story is one of the oldest myths circulating. Was there ever such a plan? The long document curling out of my fax machine, licking its way around the room, should help me find out. It is Council Directive 73-241: the first known legally harmonised recipe for chocolate. This directive was drawn up in the early, heady days of European integration, when European leaders believed that all products must be harmonised in every member state if the single market was to operate properly. All food had to be made to the same specification, they believed, or consumers would be confused and cheap “imitation” products would make competition unfair.
Drawing up a European chocolate recipe meant agreeing rules on such ingredients as vegetable and cocoa fat. Directive 73-241 declared that chocolate shall be: “… the produce obtained from cocoa nib, cocoa mass, cocoa powder and sucrose, with or without added cocoa butter, having, without prejudice to the definition of chocolate vermicelli, gianduja nut chocolate and couverture chocolate, a minimum total dry cocoa solids content of 35 per cent-at least 34 per cent of non-fat cocoa solids and 18 per cent of cocoa butter-these weights to be calculated after the weight of the additions provided for in paragraph five and six has been deducted.” In other words, the directive said that chocolate should not contain vegetable fat.
At first, it seemed, all was well, because back in the early 1970s there were only six member states in the European Community (as it then was) and none of their chocolate recipes contained much vegetable fat. The preferred taste in these countries was for cocoa fat. But then along came Britain, Denmark and Ireland-all of them traditional users of vegetable fat. Enlargement of the European union caused enormous complications, nowhere more than in matters of taste. Officials remember marmalade causing problems at the time, too; the Germans wanted to make marmalade without oranges. But chocolate was particularly sticky. Convergence criteria and a timetable were drawn up to give countries time to bring their chocolate industries into line.
But it soon became clear that the newcomers could not accept the chocolate union. Britain simply said no. They had different traditions of chocolate production, the British argued. Vegetable fat had become widely used during cocoa fat shortages in Britain during the second world war. Britons are traditionally big milk drinkers-and they like milky chocolate. Furthermore, said the British, the use of vegetable fat was advantageous: it was cheaper than cocoa fat, and meant that chocolate was less liable to melt in hot temperatures. The French and Belgians, however, had never used vegetable fat and sneered at the “inferior” British product. They were worried that chocolate made with vegetable fat would undercut their own product, and insisted that Cadbury’s Dairy Milk should not be described as chocolate. Further, they argued, the economies of cocoa fat producers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast would be damaged. (But the vegetable fat lobby countered with the threat to Burkina Faso and Mali, where the fat is produced from shear nut trees.)
Eventually the three new members got an “opt out” and Europe went “two speed” on chocolate. A “hard core” used only cocoa fat and the rest used vegetable fat as before-they agreed to allow each other’s chocolate to circulate so long as it was properly labelled with all the ingredients. This agreement was reinforced by the Cassis de Dijon ruling of the European Court, which stated that any product legally produced in one member state should be allowed to circulate freely in another.
But then the arguments started all over again. When Spain, Portugal, followed by Finland and others, joined the EU, the “variable geometry” just couldn’t work. There was simply not enough room on one Mini Cha Cha bar to carry the recipe in eleven languages on the label. All the newcomers used vegetable fat and all wanted the opt out. Furthermore, by the late 1980s it was the multi-national chocolate conglomerates, not national governments, which were dictating the arguments. All wanted vegetable fat in the recipe because it made production cheaper.
“Protect the cocoa producers,” the Cocoa Campaign said, pleading for the Ivory Coast and Ghana, but actually representing the European cocoa pressing industry. “Protect the consumer,” said Caobisco, representing chocolate multi-nationals. “Protect our chocolate,” said the Club des Croques du Chocolat in Paris. Protect us too, said Burkina Faso and Mali. Protect Mars bars, said the woman from Mars. The chocolate union was in melt-down. In Germany a man took out a patent for chocolate containing ox blood; if the chocolate directive was abolished, he said, chocolate might as well be made with blood. It was then that the “vegolate” story began to appear.
The commission now acknowledges that the chocolate union was an over-ambitious, even inappropriate attempt at harmonisation. Today there are fewer directives and the rules are simpler. “We do less but better,” says Armstrong. The problem, however, is that existing directives cannot be so easily undone. As the chocolate story shows, once Europeans have embarked on a course of integration-however foolhardy-it is hard to go back. In the early 1990s the commission decided to abolish the chocolate directive altogether; but the six original signatories objected. Furthermore, Directive 73-241 and its “opt outs” had become so intertwined in the domestic law of all member states that it could not be annulled. Even the British argued against abolition. So, once again, the commission is seeking a simple formula to which all member states can sign up. The result is likely to be a legally harmonised agreement to have no harmonised recipe at all.
much of the commission’s frustration about Euro-mythology is directed at its member states’ national media-particularly the British media. Journalists are accused of playing up Europhobia to get more space in their papers. For this reason DG10 now closely monitors the television and press in each member state. In London, a commission official starts work at 5am every day, scouring the newspapers for Euro-myths. The chocolate debate in Paris was monitored by a special agency, “Voix des M?dias,” hired by the commission to monitor French television. A new commission drive seeks a “right of reply” by promoting a “European dimension” into the news. A European journalism college has been set up at Maastricht, where officials can be found “on mission,” helping journalists to understand Europe. An EU internet service is in operation. “Europe by Satellite” is on call to respond to myths from the skies.
These efforts smack of desperation. The commission cannot be blamed for wanting to promote a European dimension, but the odds are stacked against its success. The truth is that there is no such thing as “European news.” The European newspaper, and the European editions of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal offer some form of European news, as do a handful of European broadcasters. But to most media representatives in Europe there is no such place as Europe and no European public opinion to respond to. Stories are written for national audiences, reflecting national concerns.
In any event, the commission’s efforts do not seem to be helping. Scepticism about the European venture is as high as it ever has been. Officials in Brussels complain that it is Britain which is spreading the poison. They point to journalists such as Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker, who has devoted part of his career to trying to prove that Euro-myths are true (despite never having visited Brussels). Officials also cite a recent study showing how British Euro-myths infect the continent: the German, Danish, Finnish and Swedish press have a particular taste for British Euro-myths, it says. The study refers to a free market in stories generated by “le go?t du sensationnel de certains journalistes sur les ‘Sunday papers.'” The report examines the case of a German magazine which took up a Sunday Times story saying the commission was spending ?20m translating “obscure poetry.”
Significantly, however, the same study also reveals that Euro-myths are not only British made. Other European countries generate their own Euro-myths, and there are clear national tastes. The Danish press, for example, particularly fancied a myth about European legislation which would oblige ships, whatever their size, to carry at least 200 condoms. The Finnish press accused Brussels of trying to harmonise the temperature of water in swimming pools. The Germans are particularly interested in a myth about Eurocrats’ salaries which suggests they earn more than German politicians. The Swedes have their own myth about Brussels and cat litters. Then there are common Euro-myths-such as chocolate-where you find a story has been running for so long that it has generated different permutations in each member state-again, depending on national taste.
A visit to the commission press room reveals just how hard it is to promote truly “European news.” To any newly arrived journalist the room itself is disorientating: a strange bunker, with a hemicycle briefing room and a podium where spokesmen for “Europe” sit in front of a painting resembling fried eggs on a blue background. There are no windows. No citizens peer in at you-only the eyes of interpreters staring through tinted glass. The spokesmen try their best to get their message across in daily briefings. But what they have to say is usually either too dull or too complex to get into the papers. The journalists will write what they want according to their own national concerns.
And all over Brussels, spokesmen for national governments promote their own national and political “spin” on Brussels news. In the Old Hack pub, British journalists listen to what the Treasury men have to say about the single currency. In the Pomme de Noisette, the French press get “le spin” from the Quai d’Orsay. In the European Parliament every political party from every member state is busily spinning away. Tony Robinson, press officer for the Socialist group, has spun many a myth in his day. The heyday for Euro-myths was the 1980s, he claims, when the commission was doing endless “silly things.” (He remembers the Conservatives trying to stick chocolate on him once.) But then, in those days, all myths were “true,” to Labour. In those days Labour was Euro-sceptic, and saw the entire European venture as a myth. Meanwhile, in national capitals other spin merchants are selling Brussels in their own way. A transport union claims that Neil Kinnock wants to ban lorry drivers from wearing glasses. And that story about abolition of the British “Crapper” loo-was it a plant in the Sunday Times by the Department of Trade and Industry?
As the British election campaign hots up, there will be more and more Euro-myths such as the one perpetrated in January by Angela Browning, the Tory minister, who announced that the European commission’s proposals on animal welfare meant that shellfish in transit would have to be watered every eight hours.
“The only thing is to hit back,” says Willy H?lin, in the press room. He is porte-parole for competition policy; he has had prawn cocktail crisps and everything else thrown at him over the years. “I have had to be rude. On condoms I just told the guy from the Sun: ‘Bullshit.’ They liked that, so they quoted me. Otherwise I would never have got my point of view in.” All around him the journalists are breaking into national cabals, or calling their desks back home to get their bearings. Someone is trying to stand up the story about mushy peas; others are sipping chocolat chaud and discussing whether to cover the “blind chocolate tasting” at the parliament. Gerry Kiely, porte-parole for agriculture, has stirred up a scare among the tabloids by announcing a tax on wheat exports as a result of world food shortages. “He asked for no panic headlines,” says Geoff Meade pityingly. Meade works for the Press Association, the British news agency, and is an old hand in Brussels. “When will these guys ever learn? That’s all Fraser needs to write the end of sliced bread as we know it,” he says, referring to the man from the Daily Express.
I ask Meade about the chocolate myth. “Mmmmm… chocolate. Choc, choc, chocko,” he says. “I have written it so many times. Now what was the catchline? Let’s see. There it is. Choc. Just above Chips and followed by Cigs. Ha. When the chips are down Britain comes out fighting-that was a good one,” he chortles. “Brussels officials are trying to declare British chocolate an imposter and force it to be called vegolate. That was in April… is it coming up again?” Geoff Meade becomes more expansive: “That’s the joy of this place. It’s like standing by the baggage conveyer belt at the airport. You know that the story will come round and round. Sometimes you’re there at the birth. I was in at the start with motorbike noise. Roger Barton, the Labour MEP, came up to me in the Old Hack. He told me motorbike noise was going to be big. I don’t know how he knew-probably someone is affected by it in his Sheffield constituency and they have been on to him to do something about it. It turned into the end of the superbike. Look at all the bike catchlines. But chocolate-that’s a real veteran. More than 20 years, isn’t it? If it comes up again I just re-write the intro, press the right button, and off it goes.”
The chocolate myth is also preoccupying members of the European Parliament. There was nothing very European about the parliament’s blind chocolate tasting, where French, Belgian and British MEPs nearly came to blows. Glenys Kinnock follows the chocolate debate, rather more serenely, as a vice-president of the African Caribbean Pacific-EU Joint Assembly. She understands the fears of the cocoa producing countries that the vegetable fat lobby may win the arguments. At the same time she admits that the “zero option”-a ban on vegetable fat-would bring “screaming headlines back home.” Already, she says, she can’t say “cheese” when she goes back to Wales-ever since the Western Mail ran a Euro-myth saying that the commission was to ban the delivery of milk in churns, which would threaten the production of Caerphilly cheese. “Even the Guardian took it up as if it were gospel. But there was no directive banning milk in churns so long as it was not for human consumption, but for processing milk into cheese. Then the Daily Mail ran a story saying Ronald Biggs wants to defend his Caerphilly cheese. What had Ronald Biggs got to do with it? I wrote a letter to the Independent. The first thing everybody does when life starts to go wrong is blame Brussels.”
establishing the truth about Euro-mythology is not easy. For Europhiles to call every Euro-sceptical story a “myth” is no less dishonest than it is for Europhobes to suggest that all Brussels legislation is futile. In the case of chocolate there clearly was once a plan to harmonise how chocolate should taste; out of that plan the vegolate myth was spun. So was the vegolate story wrong? If British chocolate could not be called chocolate, it would have to be called something .
Perhaps, however, whether the myths are true or not does not even matter. Who spins them is probably unimportant too. There is an appetite throughout Europe for Euro-mythology-and the appetite is growing. The stories feed a deep public need. They give expression to fear and confusion; they are strangled cries for help which cannot be scotched with a “rapid reply.” Like many of the ancient myths, Euro-myths may be evidence of an attempt by ordinary people to explain an extraordinary phenomenon which is happening beyond their control: the phenomenon of European integration.
Opposite Glenys Kinnock sits Caroline Jackson MEP, who is also a paid consultant for Mars. “What sort of chocolate do you prefer?” I ask. “I don’t really mind. I just know the stuff gives me spots,” she says. A pile of press releases spills from her lap.”Plans to call chocolate vegolate blocked. British chocolate safe,” says a headline with a smiling picture of a triumphant Jackson. “Did you ever believe there was any truth in the vegolate myth?” I ask. “Who knows what’s true around here. I want to go home,” said the woman from Mars.