Roger Swift is understandably aggrieved, but he really ought to refrain from making jokes, no matter how sardonic, at the expense of EC officials. It gives them ideas.
Swift is marketing manager at M&J Seafoods of Aylesbury, and charged with supplying customers with peeled and frozen prawns. He undertakes his office with such distinction that the company has risen to become one of the country’s biggest importers of crustacea – supplying hotels, restaurants, sandwich makers and airlines.
But suddenly all is not well at M&J Seafoods. The firm that grew from a chest freezer in a lock-up garage to a business employing 400 people in ten locations around the country has been dealt a severe blow. It’s not that the taste for peeled prawns has diminished, far from it. Nor has there been a health scare, price war, or a prawn famine. M&J has fallen foul of that most pestilential of all business hazards: the European Community. The company has found itself landed with a retrospective tax of 100,000 on millions of peeled prawns that were imported from Iceland, but originated elsewhere.
With a diligence only to expected from an organisation that legislated for the straight banana, Brussels uncovered a prawn scam where Russian and Canadian varieties were imported into Iceland and re-exported as local products. The EC insists that a duty of 20 per cent must be paid on prawns born outside the Community, notwithstanding that the consignments were certified as local by Icelandic customs officials.
That is why visitors to M&J Seafoods will find Swift busily engaged in the chore of tearing out his hair and jumping up and down. “How can we possibly check for ourselves the true nationality of every prawn brought into this country from Iceland?” he asks. If Icelandic customs officials say they are Icelandic, how can we know better? They seem to be saying that every prawn now needs an identity card to enter the EC.”
It is that which I prefer he had left unsaid. For is not an identity card for uncommunitaire prawns the very quintessence, the refined extract in its purest and most perfect form, of all that the EC stands for?
Even now a beady-eyed Brussels bureaucrat will be feverishly working on the scheme. Russian, Canadian, Far Eastern and Australasian prawns wishing to enter the EC will be required to produce, on request, a document attesting to their size, nationality, date of birth, number of legs, length of pincers and distinguishing marks.
In the interests of harmonisation, similar rules will apply to shrimps, crabs, lobsters and crayfish. Dublin Bay prawns and Norway lobsters will be admitted without let or hindrance, but only on production of an EC passport.
This new directive will be enforced with far more vigour by British officials than that shown by their Continental counterparts. Prawns suspected of entering this country illegally will be strip-searched and placed in hostels prior to deportation. To divert attention from the Government’s poor performance, the Home Secretary will pander to public opinion by playing the prawn card.
Expect a crackdown on floods of illegal prawns entering this country and claiming benefit on or about October 1. For that is the day when Britain will take a giant leap into metrication. Shops will be compelled to use metric sizes for packaged foods, liquids and carpets – and confusion will reign. The penalty for non-compliance will be a fine of 5000. As a concession to the laggardly British, loose fruit and vegetables will be sold in pounds and ounces until 2000.
The changes will take most people by surprise. No build-up to M-Day is planned, no expensive advertising campaign, no hoop-la, no nothing – just an insidious imposition from which the Government wishes to distance itself. The order to go metric has come from Brussels. John Major is understandably anxious not to reawaken the public’s latent hostility to Euro-meddling.
Christopher Booker, that most eloquent adversary of Brussels, says the conversion to metrication is symbolic, and the Government fears what it symbolises. “Why are they being so devious about it?” asks Booker mischievously, for he knows the answer.
We have Booker to thank for the knowledge that. under the Units of Measurement Regulations 1995, implementing directive 80/181, wherever any imperial measure is referred to in a public document of any kind, this must now be amended to its metric equivalent.
For instance, an ounce must now be changed to 28.349523125 grams. A ton is now the equivalenty of 1.0160469088 tonnes, an acre 4046.8564224 sq metres and one horsepower comes out as 0.74569987158227022 kilowatts.
The American humourist PJ O’Rourke once predicted that all US humour would be converted to the metric system to bring it in line with the rest of the world: “The decimal metric system of risibles, mimics, mockers, grims and merdes will replace such US customary humour units as jokes, jibes, jests, railleries, satires, burlesques and clowning around as the proper measure of comic activity”.
As in the case of poor Swift at the prawn factory, it is dangerous to joke within earshot of Brussels. Harmonised metrical humour units are the stuff bureaucrats dreams are made of. Under this directive, one rolling Italian chortle will be the equivalent of 111.98674563 French sniggers, and the English dirty laugh will equal 721.7648364 Norwegian belly laughs.
Fortunately, none of this will happen since nothing in the 38-year history of the EC suggests that anyone working in it or for it has been afflicted with a sense of humour. If they had, the whole thing would have fallen apart by now.