By DAN BILEFSKY
Published: September 12, 2007
BRUSSELS, Sept. 11 — Britons and the Irish can still down a pint of beer, walk a mile, covet an ounce of gold and eat a pound of bananas after the European Union ruled today that the countries could retain measurements dating back to the Middle Ages.
Under a previous European Union plan, Britain and Ireland would have been forced to adopt the metric system and phase out imperial measurements by 2009. But after a vociferous antimetric campaign by British skeptics and London’s tabloid press, European Union officials decided that an ounce of common sense (or 28.3 grams) suggested that granting a reprieve was better than braving a public backlash.
They also feared that forcing Britain to abolish the imperial system would have damaged European Union trade with the United States, one of three countries, including Liberia and Myanmar, that have not officially adopted the metric system.
A British grocer, Steve Thoburn of Sunderland, became known as the “metric martyr” when he was convicted in 2001 of measuring fruits and vegetables in pounds and ounces instead of kilograms. A court gave him a six-month conditional discharge. He died of a heart attack in 2004 just days after learning that his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against a conviction for using nonmetric scales in his market stall had been rejected.
The European Union has long tried to dispel myths that its zealous bureaucrats are trying to impinge on national cultures in their bid to harmonize standards in the world’s biggest trading bloc. Such myths have included that cucumbers sold in the European Union must not arch more than 10 millimeters for every 10 millimeters of length; that it is against health rules to feed swans stale bread; and that Brussels had decided that shellfish must be given rest breaks and stress-relieving showers during boat journeys over 50 kilometers long.
Gunter Verheugen, the European Union’s enterprise commissioner, said the decision to allow the imperial system to live on — which still must be approved by European Union governments — showed that the union “honors the culture and traditions of Great Britain and Ireland.”
Britain and Ireland officially use the metric system, but imperial measures are still often used alongside their metric equivalents.
Under the European Union decision, they can retain miles on road signs, and pubs may continue to serve pints of beer. Other goods must be sold in metric quantities, but retailers can display imperial equivalents.
A British government spokesman praised the decision as good for Britain and international trade.