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EU abandons metric conversion for UK and Ireland

  • Fruit and vegetables can be displayed in pounds and ounces alongside kilos and grammes (Photo: EUobserver)

In a victory for those attached to their pints, miles and ounces, the European Commission on Tuesday (11 September) finally admitted defeat and abandoned its years-long struggle to get Britain and Ireland to convert to the metric measuring system.

Instead of having imperial measurements phased out by 2009, grocers will now be able to display weights in pounds and ounces alongside their metric equivalents for as long as they want.

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Similarly, beer drinkers can continue to have their tipple in pint glasses after 2009 while precious metals can be measured in Troy ounces.

In Britain, road signs and speed limits will remain in miles. Ireland already made the metric conversion on its roads in January 2005.

Using the acre (0.4 hectares) for land registration will cease however, as neither country uses the measurement officially.

The commission u-turn comes after years of public hostility to the conversion, particularly in Britain.

The push to convert to the metric system became the symbol – gratefully seized on by eurosceptics - of a meddlesome Brussels trying to dictate the minutiae of peoples' lives.

It even spawned a mini movement known as the metric martyrs after grocer Steve Thoburn was convicted in 2001 of selling fruit and vegetables in traditional pounds and ounces instead of kilograms.

The commission's move came after a ten-week public consultation earlier this year revealed widespread hostility to the idea and also showed that having the different measurements did not impede trade.

"This proposal ... honours the culture and traditions of Great Britain and Ireland, which are important to the European Commission," EU industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said in a statement.

The move has to be formally okayed by all member states but the commission is not expecting any objections.

The UK-friendly move – it was always a bigger issue in Britain – comes just as the Europe debate in the country is hotting up with prime minister Gordon Brown facing calls to have a referendum on a proposed new EU treaty.

But the commission spokesman denied that the timing of the move was tactical.

He said it was already "foreseen" to consult on the matter and that "this is the logical follow-up to this consultation."

But even if it has nothing to do with British EU politics, it still was not entirely a culture-preserving move.

The commission was also persuaded by the argument that the US - using the imperial system - would not like to have goods imported from Europe bearing only metric measurements.

Since 1995, products sold in Europe have had to display metric weights and measurements, but the UK and Ireland had received a concession to display both systems until 2009.

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