Earlier this month children in the small English village of Great Somerford in Wiltshire were disappointed to find their favourite playground swings had been removed. Despite the swings being used by children of the village for the last 25 years, the local council had suddenly decided they were not longer safe. Why? European Standard BS EN 11 76 states that swings must be no more than 3 metres high and these particular swings were 50cms too high.

The story was picked up by the British national press and TV. It wasn’t the fact local officials had suddenly decided to comply with regulations in force since 1999 that caught the imagination of the British media. Nor was it that the cost of replacement of the swings will be over Fr5000 of taxpayers’ money. No, with suitable photographs of tearful village children, the story was blown up into the now-daily diet the British receive cooked up by the anti-EU media showing yet again how the European Union is interfering with the daily lives of ordinary British people.

Included in a long list of stories is the market trader who was jailed for selling fruit in pounds and ounces, instead of kilos. He argued, quite logically, that neither he nor his customers understood kilos and he was doing them a service by continuing to sell in imperial weights. The British pint has been saved from the jaws of Brussels and beer is sold, not in divisions of litres, but as it has been for centuries, in pints. In fact, in the UK it is illegal to sell beer in metric measures. Hence the newspapers loved the story of Austrian-born Andrea Schultz’s Worcester pub where she sold beer in 0.3, 0.5 and 1 litre measures. The court case is pending.

The Common Market as it then was in 1975, was sold to the British public as the only way forward in what the Swiss do every 3 months, and the British do every hundred years – a referendum. We were promised bigger markets for our products and it was strongly hinted that our wine and tobacco duties would be harmonised downwards to be in line with the rest of Europe. That was 28 years ago. Since then the British have seen their industry decimated by foreign competition until today the Austin ’Mini’ is owned by BMW, Rolls Royce by Ford and the British still pay the highest rates for alcohol and tobacco. Maybe without being in the EU, things would be worse for the British, but they do not see it that way. In 1975 32.8% voted against membership. If that vote was taken today it is estimated by the ‘Euro sceptic’ press that up to 80% would be against continued membership.

The strongest argument for remaining in the EU is that British would still have some influence of decisions, but that is a sad and weak reason far from the ideals of European unity that gave birth to the Common Market and drives the EU today.

The British and Swiss share many of the same view points about the EU. Both countries’ politicians are dazzled by the shiny dream of a United Europe, while the people find it harder to see the advantage of paying more tax only to be told what to do by foreigners. Big businesses love the concept of one market, as it can make them even bigger. While small local companies find the legislation a burden and the benefits questionable.

The foundation of the EU is the Franco-German axis. Until 1945, the 20th century was a bad one for mainland Europe. Since then, the EU has worked hard to change battle fields into borderless trading and united legislation. The trouble is that both Britain and Switzerland do not associate themselves with the black side of the pre 1945 European history. Swiss neutrality means wars were not their fault and the British even feel themselves the heroes of the 20th century. In fact the UK received a better press before 1945 than after. Thus the motivation to ‘make amends for the past and ensure it cannot happen again’ simply does not apply to Britain or Switzerland.

As long as Germany keeps on paying, the EU will keep on functioning. But with deep problems in the economic powerhouse of Europe and ambitious expansion eastwards, the EU cannot keep bankrolling weaker member states for ever. 2004 will be a difficult year for the EU with its new eastern members joining. Presently it is estimated 10% of EU funds are lost to corruption, expansion is not going to help this situation. There is also a certain madness in EU methods that cannot continue. For example, the EU spends 3 billion euros under the Common Agricultural Policy to assist Greek and Italian tobacco growers, then spends 12 million euros a year on trying to persuade its citizens not to smoke.

Britain looks fondly across the Atlantic – where they speak the same language, not just English, but are on the same side of the political fence. Meanwhile Britain sees a united front against the likes of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Irak’s Sadam, thwarted at every turn by their European partners. Maybe Britain is not destined for a place in a United States of Europe. Switzerland take heart – you are not alone after all.