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banner Monday, 18 September, 2000, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Yes, we have no overly bent bananas
Labour is suffering excess "timidity" on the issue of Europe, while the Conservatives are displaying "withdrawal symptoms", Menzies Campbell told a Britain in Europe fringe meeting on Monday.

The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman joined MEP Chris Huhne, economics spokesman for the party's Euro-team, to attack the way a largely eurosceptic press and a lack of leadership from the government had combined to leave the field of public debate wide open to the anti camp.

Richmond Park MP Jenny Tonge, chairing, opened by expressing her delight at addressing a meeting on matters European. She seldom got to do so in her own constituency, she told the audience, except at events organised by the anti-EU Democracy Movement.

Menzies Campbell attacked Tory leader William Hague's recent proposals for the UK to claim reserve powers in relation to the EU. This, said Mr Campbell, amounted to "the destruction of the fundamental basis of the European Union".

It was time for the Tories to "come clean" about the real agenda for Europe.

There was much laughter when, in mock sorrow, he said he now had to include onetime SDP leader David Owen in the camp Mr Campbell ironically labelled the "defenders of democracy", which wished to persuade the government not to hold its proposed referendum on joining the euro.

He took a sideswipe at Labour's handling of the issue, saying it was "deeply disappointing that the government had chosen to take a back seat".

"Timidity on this issue may appear to make superficial sense from an electoral point of view, but it does not serve Britain's national interest well."

The fuel crisis over the past week had shown what happened when governments took the timid approach, he added.

Bananas

Former journalist Chris Huhne berated the fact that most comment in the newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid alike, was highly negative when it came to the European Union - and sometimes "thoroughly mendacious".

He cited in evidence a recent Sunday Times story alleging that the European Commission proposed to impose uniformity of size on all theatre seats.

Like tales of the EU seeking to ban innocuous objects such as bent bananas, brandy butter and cucumbers whose curves failed to comply with Euro-directives, after investigating the story issue in Brussels he found "absolutely no basis in truth whatsoever", he told the meeting.

After many subsequent phone calls to the paper, he said, all it printed was a miniscule correction.

Though, as a former hack himself, he was reluctant to criticise his erstwhile profession, he had come to the conclusion that the Rupert Murdoch-owned press in particular was letting the profession down.

"I'm of the view now that the normal journalistic standards of checking facts, checking stories, no longer apply."

Opening the meeting to questions from the floor, Jenny Tonge could have been forgiven for thinking she was back in her constituency: the first questioner turned out to be a Euro-sceptic from the fiercely anti-EU Campaign for an Independent Britain.

Muffled groans escaped members of the audience when he threatened to fetch from his car "six pages of proof" that the EU was indeed seeking to ban bent bananas and insufficiently straight cucumbers.

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