Europe – has it ever been a level playing field?

T45 Roadtrain

Were you, like me, incensed at the apparently sudden decision of the Eurocrats to charge Britain a further £1.7 billion, as announced last week? Whatever your political persuasion, it seemed hard to avoid the conclusion that this draconian move was aimed squarely at penalising the UK for its recent years of austerity and cutbacks as the Government sought to bring our budget under control, whilst other, more profligate, countries seemed to be getting an increased share of the Eurobudget? Although the powers-that-be made half-hearted explanations that this increased contribution from the UK was right-and-proper and a direct result of Britains improving economy, this excuse was itself blown out of the water by this weekends newspapers, which told us that, in fact, our contribution to Europe had already increased by £2.7bn this year for that very reason! Talk about adding insult to injury!

It made me reflect, however, that the European organisation has almost certainly never been truly unbiased, as I discovered many years ago as a wet-behind-the-ears young design engineer working for Leyland Trucks. At that time, the European Community was in its relative infancy, with one of its prime objectives being to harmonise standards and so facilitate cross-border trade. This made, to me anyway, huge sense as truck legislative standards varied widely from country to country within Europe, making it a real challenge to sell UK vehicles into other countries (remember Frances insistence on yellow headlamps, anyone?) . The concept of having a one-size-fits-all set of European legislation standards, valid in all countries, sounded ideal.

T45 Roadtrain

The Leyland Roadtrain, which went on to become for a period Britains best selling heavy truck

So it was that Leyland, setting out in the late 1970’s to design their new truck range, Roadtrain, opted to design and test it to the then new (and still optional) European Type Approval requirements. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would then have ensured the truck was then developed to the best possible standards. Well, that was far from the case, as some of the Type Approval requirements even then managed to contain a hefty bias in favour of mainland European manufacturers products rather than those from good old Blighty.

How did this come about? Quite simply, each piece of European legislation is put together by a group of rapporteurs, or experts, drawn from the manufacturers of the relevant products. Now anyone who has ever served on a committee will be all too aware that such a team is made up of people with a wide range of motives, ranging from those who firmly believe they have something positive to bring to the table, to those “professional meetings attenders” who are, let us say, a little less motivated, see committee membership as an end in itself, and are quite happy to let others do all the work, merely rubber-stamping their proposals. Sadly, sometimes committees also contain individuals who seek to gain unfair advantage by manipulating their peers and promoting their views in such a way that they, or their company, gain unfair advantage.

And that is exactly what happened all those years ago. One of the key pieces of European legislation which Leyland decided to adopt was the Steering Directive, 70/311/EEC. That Directive contained, amongst various other requirements, performance criteria for the ability to steer a vehicle with the power steering failed. Basically, the Directive specified that, from driving in a straight line at a certain speed with no power assistance, the vehicle had to be able to turn on to a curve of a certain radius within a certain time and with a certain maximum effort from the driver.

Anyone who has ever tried to steer a truck with no power steering will agree that such a requirement must be a “good thing” and so we all thought………………….until the Development team tried, repeatedly, to carry out the test without success. Despite much experimentation and head-scratching a solution proved elusive, until finally Leyland’s engineers were tipped the wink by a friendly steering gear supplier.

It seemed that representatives from a certain German truck manufacturer had been active in the committee which formulated the Directive, and had sneakily ensured that the Directive made no mention of how many people could be used to haul the steering wheel round. They had realised that, in reality, carrying out this test was not one smooth continuous operation. Having taken a big armful of lock and pushed the steering wheel round as far as possible, the driver then needed to relax his grip on the wheel and move his hands back ready for another huge heave, continuing in this way until the desired turn had been achieved. In the periods whilst the driver was moving his hands, of course, the course of the vehicle did not change. What the German manufacturer had realised was that in these gaps, with a bit of practice, a second driver could do his bit in also hauling the steering wheel around, enabling the manoeuvre to be carried out much more effectively! Result – a huge sales benefit to the German manufacturer, who for some time was able to proudly proclaim that they were the only manufacturer able to comply with the Steering Directive.

Was this an isolated instance? Your guess is as good as mine, although blatant national self-interest does seem to be the only logical explanation for some of the just plain daft legislation which has come out of Brussels and Strasbourg over the years – just think bent bananas for example!

Returning to the European budget theme though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that self-interest and envy played a significant part in the latest financial demands. Have the greedy European Parliament gone too far this time though? We shall see………………


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