Christopher Booker's notebook
On January 1 a Cornish company with thousands of customers is to be put summarily out of business, because the officials of English Nature (EN) are so desperate to show themselves as "good boys" in Brussels, by meeting their EU conservation targets, that they don't mind putting people out of work.
For 25 years the Cornish Calcified Seaweed Company (CCSC) has been dredging the seabed off Falmouth for "maerl", the dead remains of two species of seaweed which grow in coral-like formations. This is sold to discerning livestock farmers, including Prince Charles's Highgrove estate, as an organic fertiliser.
In 1996 EN designated this part of the seabed as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU's Habitats Directive, which names these types of seaweed as protected species (even though most of this SAC contains only their dead remains, as a kind of gritty material). EN claims that this provides habitat for a variety of tiny molluscs, crustaceans and worms, although these are all abundant elsewhere and not peculiar to maerl.
Since 2000, EN – which reports annually to Brussels to show how actively it is protecting its SACs – has been pressing the Falmouth harbour commissioners to withdraw the CCSC's annual dredging licence, though removing the dead maerl, in the words of the firm's owner, David Cary, "is like sweeping up autumn leaves". Two studies, in 1998 and 2003, showed that the effect of skimming off a few inches from deposits estimated at up to 50 million tonnes was insignificant.
In July this year, a further study by a firm of consultants showed that the depth of maerl in the licensed area had been dramatically reduced, apparently in 12 months, by as much as "1.7 metres". However, the report went on to explain that on average only "0.13 metres" of this, much less than a tenth, was due to dredging. The rest could be ascribed to other factors, such as wave action in storms.
EN was so keen to see the dredging stopped, however, that this was enough. Its officials threatened the Falmouth harbour authorities with legal action unless the licence were withdrawn. Otherwise, it was claimed, EN itself could be taken to the European Court of Justice. With "great reluctance" the harbour commissioners therefore told CCSC that, as from January 1, dredging must cease.
Ironically, the Falmouth harbour authorities will themselves be dredging in the same area soon, to deepen the channel into the port. But when CCSC asked if the maerl removed in this operation could be used as fertiliser, it was told that the spoil would be dumped at sea, causing serious ecological damage. In Ireland and France, under the same directive, companies are permitted to continue dredging for maerl, even though the Irish deposits in Bantry Bay are only a fiftieth the size of those off Cornwall.
The result of EN's action is that, in two weeks, eight people will lose their jobs. EN discounts this social cost by claiming that "over £7 million is brought into the Cornish economy by visits to conservation areas". Among those to be made unemployed is CCSC's managing director, Joanne Kemp, who has worked for the firm since she left school 26 years ago at the age of 16. All this in the name of preserving a habitat which, if English Nature knew anything about nature, it would know is continually being destroyed anyway.
There was an extraordinary act of duplicity at the heart of the announcement by the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that the British Army is to be restructured round a series of "larger regimental formations". All attention was on the abolition of old historic regiments. What Mr Hoon did not explain was what these new, more mobile units would be for.
In particular he did not remind the House that last April he agreed with his European colleagues that the EU should be able to deploy "battle-groups" of 1,500 men in international danger zones. In the course of this year the plan has been firmed up, so that Britain is now pledged to contribute, by 2007, to the EU's Rapid Reaction Force, made up of 12 such battle-groups.
Mr Hoon's new regimental formations of 1,500 men fit precisely with the EU's agreed template. So too does his further announcement on Thursday that British troops will be equipped with the EU-compatible, electronically-linked vehicles known collectively as the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES).
In other words, the "elephant in the room" which no one mentioned on Thusday was that the guiding principle behind Mr Hoon's controversial restructuring of our Army is to make it compatible with the EU's new defence force. Furthermore, since the Army will be equipped with FRES, it will no longer be able to work alongside US forces – which are planning a totally different system – but only with fellow members of the EU.
The Tory front bench was well aware of all this last week, but the word had gone out from their chief defence spokesman, Nicholas Soames, that it was not to be mentioned, because the party does not want the debate on Britain's defences to become a potentially divisive Euro-row. Thus, without the usual White Paper, our most significant defence policy decisions for decades are taken behind the scenes, for reasons not even Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is prepared to reveal.
Do my colleagues at The Telegraph have any idea how our country is governed? Last week they launched an award for "the most mind-bogglingly frustrating piece of red tape put forward in 2004", suggesting that the front-runners might well be the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry. But every one of the edicts for which they blamed Defra and the DTI in fact came from higher up the chain of government in Brussels.
This followed the column in which Boris Johnson castigated the Labour Government for the ridiculous new regulation which makes it a criminal offence for us to carry out electrical work in our homes without permission from the local council (followed by an inspection that we must pay for). He was seemingly oblivious that this edict too came from Brussels.
Last weekend, Germaine Greer devoted her Country Diary to savaging the Home Office for the fact that, as an Australian, she now has to pay £250 for a special stamp in her passport, to show that she has leave to remain in the UK indefinitely. For decades she has had this renewed automatically for nothing. Had Ms Greer read this column 12 months ago, she might have known that the Home Office has to do this under EC Council Regulation 1030/2002.
I hereby offer a first edition of The Great Deception, the history of the European Union that I wrote with Dr Richard North, as the Elephant in the Room Award 2005. This will be given to the person who spots the most crassly naive example of someone blaming the British Government for a bureaucratic imposition that in fact originates from our real government in Brussels. Special marks will be awarded for spotting contributions from politicians, such as the MP for Henley, who are paid by taxpayers to know better.
Two weeks back, I reported the startling fact that the first publicly available, printed version of the proposed EU constitution was about to be published by a tiny business organisation based in the Cotswolds. Hundreds of my readers who ordered The European Constitution in Perspective from the British Management Data Foundation (01452 812837) got 306 pages for their £27.50, including a definitive text of the treaty, a wealth of meticulous analysis and an invaluable index.
Stung by the charge that such an important document should only be available through private enterprise, the Foreign Office has rushed out its own 511-page version, much less user-friendly, without analysis or index, and costing nearly twice as much: £47.
In my earlier report, I made a careless comparison with the American Constitution. The original US Constitution contained only seven articles, although 27 amendments bring the total to 34. This compares with the 448 articles in the constitution proposed for the EU. On which cheering note, may I wish a very happy Christmas to my readers, in all the 21 official languages of that new country to which Mr Blair wishes us soon to belong.