Could the UK's geopolitical future really be influenced by toasters and vacuum cleaners?

Oh dear, there's been another media storm over the EU's supposed plans to outlaw 'powerful' toasters and kettles.

Will toasters be the undoing of the EU, asks Edward Robinson
Will toasters be the undoing of the EU, asks Edward Robinson
And this time journalists have been further piqued by reports that Eurocrats have been delaying policy proposals precisely to avoid a negative reception in the British press.

Last time this happened, Brits queued up to buy 'high powered' vacuum cleaners while they still could, leading to a spike in sales of the very equipment from which the EU was trying protect consumers. 

The situation is this. In 2009 every EU government signed off on an extension to the Eco-Design Directive. The aim is to consider carefully the performance requirements of a range of energy-related products, to set EU-wide standards and to phase out egregious underperformers. It has worked superbly well for fridges and other appliances so far. 

From a PR perspective, though, the important question is this: what is a powerful electrical appliance? 
Sticking with vacuum cleaners, is it a) one that collects the maximum amount of dust, keeping noise levels as low as possible without spewing particles into the air, or is it b) one that uses the maximum amount of electricity no matter what its dust-busting merit? 

If you’re the European Commission (or one of the 28 national governments that jointly craft these regulations) you think it’s the former; if you work for a British national newspaper you probably think it’s the latter. 

But what about a Brit, in the market for a new vacuum and concerned about bills?  

It’s true that the British market for energy-guzzling gear has been strong. But a key factor here is marketing. 

If you were told that a high-powered cleaning machine is a 2,000-watt monster with flashing lights and the Appassionata on loop, you might snap it up. 

If you were told that the same machine was as efficient at collecting dust as your average carpet sweeper you might think again. 

That’s because, as with all items that 'convert' energy, what you put in does not automatically turn into better performance. 

It’s also a question of design. 

But whereas most drivers know how much petrol their cars use, no-one interrogates their electricity bills to find the impact of a single appliance. In an ideal world we would just commission a Top Gear for vacuum cleaners but…

The PR mess means that what is really a consumer protection issue is still being reported as a conspiracy of bug-eyed environmentalists. 

The blame does not lie with the Commission, which is not a federal government and so doesn’t have the comms scope or media profile to promote policy the way national governments do. 

The responsibility lies squarely with national governments, who help design, vote on and implement every single piece of EU legislation.  

We are not unique in the UK in communicating EU policy poorly, but we could pay a heavy price for successive governments’ chronic unwillingness to explain the decisions they take in Brussels. 

Edward Robinson is an EU policy specialist at Culmer Raphael 

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