Christopher Booker's notebook
Petty dictators Economical with the truth Scales of justice Nutty rulings
One inevitable consequence of the avalanche of ill-drafted diktats which pour out of Brussels is that even the officials charged with enforcing those laws can get totally confused as to what they mean. A recent example is an appeal to the public by Bradford city council health officials to "sneak" on local butchers who are "breaking the law" by selling dog bones - when the law says nothing of the kind.
John Smith is one of the butchers who have been told by Bradford's hygiene police that, if they continue to serve their customers with bones for dogs, they will, in four months' time, be put out of business by losing their licences. The officials claim that, under the EC's animal by-products regulation, 1774/2002, it is now a criminal offence to sell dog bones. Furthermore, if any member of the public "knows of any butchers selling bones, can they please alert us and we will follow it up".
This has predictably been reported by the local press as "EU clamps down on bone sale". "Thanks to Brussels bureaucrats," says the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, "the tasty dog-treats have been struck off the canine menu and made illegal." But the fact is that there is no such law.
Regulation 1774/2002, supposedly designed to prevent the spread of disease from animal remains, may be one of the most absurd and draconian pieces of legislation even Brussels has ever issued. But one thing it does not prohibit is selling bones for dogs. "These regulations shall not apply," it says, to the sale of "raw petfood", where meat has been cut and stored "for the purpose of serving the customer on the spot".
This may be as clumsily drafted as we have come to expect from Brussels edicts. But as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recognises, any meat which enters a butcher's shop has been approved by the Meat Hygiene Service as fit for human consumption. Any bones or trimmings from that meat can thus be sold for human or animal consumption, unless they are specifically declared as "waste". Then, under the same regulation, they must be removed, at considerable cost to the butcher, to be rendered down and incinerated.
Despite Defra itself being clear on this point, Bradford and other councils have taken this woolly Brussels wording to mean that bones can only be sold to the customer buying the meat from which they are taken. They have thus wholly misread the law.
As Mr Smith explains, to have all his bones carted away would cost up to £2,000 a year. He says he will continue "to serve my customers with what they want". Despite those muddle-headed officials threatening to put him out of business, he will be wholly within the law in doing so.
Andrew Marr, the BBC's chief political correspondent, complained in his Daily Telegraph column last week that it had been impossible to make the recent agreement of the EU constitution in Brussels seem interesting. One reason for this is that Mr Marr and his colleagues are so ill-briefed, and so used to reporting EU affairs in superficial soap-opera terms. They thus miss a large part of the real drama, which might not only make their own job more interesting but keep the rest of us better informed.
A glaring example was their failure to notice the sleight of hand which resulted in Mr Blair giving away control of Britain's economic policy. The constitution requires that all member states "closely co-ordinate" these policies. Hitherto the "common economic policy" has been decided by the European Council, operating by "consensus", which makes it suitably vague and not binding.
Now, by a last-minute amendment, the power to dictate economic policy has been transferred from the European Council to the Council of Ministers, where decisions can be reached by "qualified majority voting". If the constitution is ratified, this means that Britain (and other countries) could be forced to adopt economic policies against their national interest and to which they are strongly opposed.
This is such a far-reaching innovation that, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph on Monday, I asked whether Mr Blair had bothered to tell Gordon Brown what he had agreed to, and if so, what was the response. In the Commons later that day, the Tory MP Angela Browning, having noted my letter, asked Mr Blair to confirm that economic policy had been moved to majority voting. When Mr Blair failed to give a proper answer, another backbencher, Ann Winterton, repeated the question. When he still failed to answer, Mrs Browning put down a written question, asking him to explain the huge surrender he had made.
She was then told her question had been referred to the Foreign Office, which no doubt will come up with a similarly obfuscatory reply. As I said in my letter, the person whose views we would really like to hear is the Chancellor. But for Andrew Marr, the question would doubtless seem too boring and trivial to ask.
In common with other traders all over the country, Sally Prime and Marcus Hughes, who run my local village shop in Chewton Mendip, Somerset, recently had a visit from "Trading Standards". Despite the fact that, as Sally explained, "we have never once been asked to weigh out goods in metric", they must now spend several hundred pounds on metric-only scales.
The reason for this new "crackdown" on the 40,000-odd traders who still sell goods in pounds and ounces was a circular from the Labour-dominated Local Government Association. Following the refusal of the European Court of Human Rights to hear an appeal from the late Steve Thoburn against his criminal conviction for selling a "pound of bananas", the LGA instructed Britain's councils to "recommence" enforcement of EU metrication laws.
During the recent local government election campaign, the Tories made great play with this edict. Tory spokesman Bernard Jenkin said: "Our councils are now being instructed by Labour-run bureaucrats to spend money on prosecuting market traders and greengrocers for the 'crime' of serving goods like bananas in pounds and ounces.
"Conservatives," he promised, "would reinstate the right to sell such goods" in the measures the vast majority of customers prefer.
Since the elections, control of the LGA has passed to the Tories. Last week Neil Herron, the campaign director for the "Metric Martyrs", invited Mr Jenkin and his colleagues to ensure that the LGA called a halt to its "blitz" on shopkeepers, in accordance with their election pledge. He has so far had no response.
Meanwhile, back in Somerset, our trading standards officer was clearly embarrassed at forcing Sally and Marcus to spend a hefty chunk of their hard-earned profits on switching to metric-only sales. He suggested they should apply for a council grant to pay for the new scales that none of their customers want.
If it was a mystery why the new EU member states last weekend all fell so meekly into line on the new constitution - of which several, notably Poland, had earlier been highly critical - one explanation may have been Wednesday's little-noticed announcement that, over the next two years, Brussels is to give them a staggering £16 billion in extra subsidies (more than £1 billion of this from UK taxpayers). Half of this goes to Poland, a good chunk of it to rebuild the Polish fishing fleet which will soon enjoy "equal access" to UK fishing waters.
One new "EU citizen" whose hostility may not be bought off so easily is Steve Rappaport, an American living in the Czech Republic, who since 1993 has run a successful business importing duty-free peanut butter from the US. He has been told that not only must he pay a 12 per cent EU duty, but that it is illegal to sell US-made peanut butter in the EU at all, because it does not comply with EU rules on "nut-safety".
Mr Rappaport doubtless recalls that it was President Reagan who did so much to help his adopted country regain its freedom from Communism in 1989. That freedom, it seems, no longer includes the right to eat US peanut butter, or for Mr Rappaport to continue in business.