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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 04/04/2004)

Paper deluge
A high price for roast beef
Don't tell the voters
The BBC's anti-sceptic agenda

Paper deluge

One of the problems facing the 10 new countries due to join the European Union next month is that they must obey more than 97,000 pages of EU law, much of which has still not been translated into their own languages. This again highlights the scale of the legislation pouring out of Brussels, which has recently been increasing by more than 20,000 pages a year.

Figures supplied by the European Commission show that new laws published in the Official Journal last year covered 253,100 pages. Divided between 11 languages, this amounted to 23,000 pages of new legislation. In addition 439 separate editions of the Journal included 303,964 pages of additional documents. Documents relating to the EU budget alone required another 40,000 pages. The number of new documents generated by the Commission each year now amounts to well over two million pages.

The scale of the EU's lawmaking dwarfs anything produced by national parliaments. Even the Cabinet Office website admits that "almost half of all major UK laws start off in Europe". Yet in general our politicians and media have not even begun to realise the extent to which Britain's laws and policies are decided by the new system of government centred in Brussels.

That this is so is made clear by the debate over the proposed EU constitution, which Mr Blair and his European colleagues hope to agree by the end of June. The constitution is commonly discussed as if it were something entirely new, marking a quantum leap in European integration. Yet the fact is that we already have such a constitution, as anyone can see merely by looking at the existing EU treaties.

What the Treaty of Rome set up, just like the constitution of the USA, were all the institutions necessary to establish a new government, defining its powers to make laws and decide policy. By successive treaties those powers have been extended, until they coveror touch on almost every area of government, including tax, the economy, health, education, foreign and defence policy, immigration, crime and justice. Such is the system we are already ruled by, deciding "almost half all major UK laws". The "new" constitution would merely carry that process a few steps further.

The problem is that no one has ever properly explained all this to us, which is why most people still do not grasp how thoroughly a slow-motion coup d'etat has removed from us our power to govern ourselves. Furthermore no one has ever consulted us as to whether or not we are happy about it, apart from that sad joke of a referendum in 1975 when politicians of all parties concealed what we were letting ourselves in for. This is why the polls show that most of the British people support a referendum on the constitution: not so much because they wish to pronounce on what is being proposed for the future as because they want the chance to give a verdict on what has already happened.

A high price for roast beef

Last Friday The Telegraph revealed that Britain's Armed Forces face their most devastating cuts in history, to save 1.2 billion. Service chiefs are outraged at the prospect that the Royal Navy will have to axe two aircraft carriers and 88 Sea King helicopters; the RAF will have to ground most of its planes; and the Army will lose 100 tanks and armoured vehicles, 88 helicopters and several famous regiments. All this is to meet a cash shortfall created as much as anything by the need to throw yet more money after the 18 billion project to build the Eurofighter, an aircraft long rendered superfluous by the end of the Cold War and only agreed to by Michael Heseltine, when he was defence minister, because of his Europhilia.

Yet also on Friday the BBC's Today programme reported that government scientists had now accepted that it was no longer dangerous to eat beef from cattle more than 30 months old, and that these could now be allowed back into the food chain. What Today omitted to mention, with its usual amateurishness, was that the ban on eating beef from 30-month-old cattle was never imposed for health reasons in the first place.

The so-called "Over 30 Month Scheme" (OTMS) was introduced at the height of the 1996 hysteria over BSE purely as a marketing measure, urged on the Government by the supermarkets to "restore consumer confidence" and then agreed to by the European Commission (it was set up under Commission Regulation 716/96). The scientists never recommended such a ban.

So what is the relevance of this to those defence cuts? Simply that the cost to taxpayers of pointlessly incinerating 4 million head of healthy cattle since 1996 under the OTMS has amounted to more than 3 billion, nearly three times the saving the Government hopes to make by bringing Britain's Armed Forces to their knees.

Add to this the fact that the Government proposes to waste a further 2 billion over the next 10 years by doing nothing to halt the runaway epidemic of TB in Britain's cattle, and again one is forced to wonder whether our ministers have any idea what they are up to.

Don't tell the voters

The farce over John Prescott's plan to divide up England under regional governments continues. At a recent meeting in Newcastle attended by around 200 people, a junior minister, Philip Hope, launched his master's "Your Say" campaign in preparation for this autumn's referendum on whether the North-East should become the first English "Euro-region" outside London to have its own elected assembly.

From the audience, Neil Herron, the leader of the North-East's "No" campaign, asked Mr Hope how many leaflets his department had printed to explain to the North-East's nearly two million voters what regional government was about. The minister riffled through his papers and said he had not got the figures with him.

Mr Herron said that, "as one of those sad people who read Hansard", he did have the figures, as reported to the House of Commons by Nick Raynsford, the regional affairs minister, on March 22. Mr Hope intervened to say that, if Mr Herron would leave his card, he would contact him with the figures later. From the audience came cries of: "Mr Herron says he has the figures. Can we hear them?" Mr Herron therefore revealed that the Government had printed just 139,000 "Your Say" leaflets to cover the region's 1.9 million voters. "Are we expected to read one, memorise it, then pass it on to 13 other people?" he asked.

As for Mr Prescott's other pamphlet, "Assembly Powers and Responsibilities", only 5,000 had been printed. Mr Herron hoped these would be distributed with rather more efficiency than the leaflets recently delivered to council tax payers in Northumberland explaining proposed boundary changes in Yorkshire.

Mr Prescott's office hopes that a Bill setting out the powers of the proposed regional governments may be put before MPs "before the end of July". But it is possible that by the time the voters of the North-East are asked to vote "yes" or "no", they still won't know what the Government is asking them to vote for. Hardly surprisingly, the latest polls show that the majority of voters in the North-East haven't the slightest idea what Prescott and his cronies are on about; but whatever it is, they are likely to be against it.

The BBC's anti-sceptic agenda

The BBC's one-sided and inadequate reporting of anything to do with the EU - which was pointed out again last week in a report from the Centre of Policy Studies - has long been a marvel of the age. Inevitably the BBC always denies that it has any hidden pro-EU agenda. So it was refreshing to hear Jonathon Chapman, a BBC producer in Brussels, proclaiming in a recent seminar at the Malta Press Club that, faced with the Euro-scepticism of most of the British press, "we try in Brussels to break that cycle of scepticism". "The BBC's job," said Mr Chapman, "is to reflect the European perspective, and make news less sceptical. That is why the BBC has such a big bureau in Brussels."

The role of the diplomat, it was once said, is to be sent abroad to lie on behalf of his country. The BBC's role, it seems, is now to go abroad to tell the truth that it dare not admit at home.