Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 15/02/2004)

US and European satellites are on a collision course
Howard's mixed signals
Haddock best for our fishermen
What do we pay taxes for?

US and European satellites are on a collision course

Almost wholly missed by the world's media, a major row is going on behind the scenes between the US government and the European Union over the EU's proposed global satellite system, in which, since last October, the People's Republic of China has been a full partner. By 2008 the EU's Galileo system will be a direct rival to the US GPS (global positioning satellite) system.

Galileo's 30 satellites will give the EU a wide range of new powers, from running Europe's air traffic control to monitoring the movement of any vehicle on Europe's roads, enabling it to operate toll and congestion charge systems and even to control the speeds at which vehicles can drive. It will also be a huge revenue earner because, unlike the US GPS system which is free, Galileo will charge its users.

The EU's Europa website lists the uses of Galileo as being to provide "information concerning the positioning of users", including vehicle location and "speed control", along with assisting "social services (eg aid for the disabled or elderly)", the "justice system", "search and rescue" and "leisure (direction-finding at sea or in the mountains)". Astonishingly, however, there is no mention of Galileo's military uses, and it is this which is currently causing major friction between Washington and Brussels.

The EU plans to use a standard signal, known as the binary offset carrier (BOC) 1.5, very close to the "M-code" due to be used by the US military. Most people do not realise just how far satellite positioning has revolutionised warfare, as was demonstrated by the recent Iraq war, when not only every missile and aircraft depended on GPS, but the entire US command and control system, enabling it to pinpoint every unit and vehicle on the battlefield.

What is alarming Washington about the EU's insistence on using the BOC signal is that this will make it impossible for the US to jam communications available to a potential enemy without jamming its own system; and the fact that China is now a full partner in Galileo could give both China and the EU an extraordinarily powerful bargaining chip in any future conflict. Earlier this month talks in Washington broke down, when the EU refused to back off from its insistence on using BOC 1.5, although they are due to resume within two weeks.

What should alarm the rest of us about Galileo is not just that it threatens to drive an immense further wedge between Britain and the USA, but that it is fully intended to be a major new instrument of the EU's control over its citizens: not least in its capacity to track down the exact whereabouts of any vehicle or person carrying a microchip, inclusion of which could be made compulsory in any car or identity card. Most worrying of all, however, is how little our politicians seem to be telling us about it.

What do we pay taxes for?

Last week Ozden Mutlu, who runs Istanbul Forwarding, a small North London firm, was tearing his hair out. On Saturday February 7 a truck arrived at Dover from Turkey containing consignments of goods for 10 of his customers, ranging from clothing and electrical goods to mirrors and greetings cards. HM Customs ordered an inspection of the lorry which, according to a report, left the contents in disarray, with "many boxes split open, torn or crushed", some splashed with oil.

Customs found nothing untoward, but they then sent Mr Mutlu a bill for 768.50 for their services, holding the truck and its contents until Monday when it could be paid. This left Mr Mutlu with the problem of how to reclaim from his customers a sum larger than his firm's profit on the entire transaction. As he says: "We are used to our trucks being inspected by customs from time to time at frontier posts across Europe, but only in the UK are we expected to pay."

The old principle that government is funded by taxpayers to carry out its duties seems to be breaking down in all directions. I am still getting letters from readers about the new visa system required under EC law for UK residents who hold foreign passports. A Devon reader, married for 30 years to an American citizen, asked the Home Office immigration department in Croydon what she now had to do to replace the old "no time limit" visa which was always stamped, free of charge, in her passports.

He got three answers. First he was told she would only have to show her old passport, with its "NTL" stamp - then that immigration officials had discretion not to accept this. Finally he was told she would definitely need a new visa, costing 155 and taking up to 13 weeks, although a same-day service could be provided for 250. Since his wife needed to return urgently to the USA to sort out her deceased parents' affairs, they had to pay 250. But they first had to spend a week searching for documentary proof that she had never been absent from the UK for more than two years since her visa was first granted in 1974: not easy, since most official documents, such as tax bills, were addressed to her husband. In fact, as he says, all this proved unnecessary, since "the official who dealt with our application was extremely helpful and not at all interested in our proof". He "simply stamped the new passport 'NTL' and said "I'm afraid that's all you get for your 250"; warning that they will have to go through it all again when her passport expires, and that Mr Blunkett now wants to raise the fee to 500.

My reader concluded: "Presumably we can expect the same 'user must pay' principle to be applied to the cost of providing the health service, policing, prisons, libraries and state benefits." As Mr Mutlu could confirm, he is not joking. But the question remains, what then do we pay our taxes for? (Until the day, of course, when the Inland Revenue charges us a fee for reading our tax forms and taking our money.)

Howard's mixed signals

Commentators have understandably been bewildered by the signals coming from Michael Howard as to where the Tory Party now stands on "Europe". First there was his reversal of the earlier decision to pull his MEPs out of the European People's Party, the largest group in the European Parliament, which is firmly pledged to a European constitution, greater integration and the single currency. What made this even odder was that, if the Tories had broken away to form a new group with MEPs from eastern Europe, as planned, they could have been 5 million a year better off in funding for research and secretarial support. The chance to claim this extra money was a factor in the previous leadership's decision to break away from the EPP.

Puzzling in a different way was Mr Howard's speech in Berlin last week, interpreted by Jim Naughtie on the Today programme and others as just a return to John Major's wishful thinking about wanting a "flexible Europe of nation states": in other words a "Europe" contradicting everything the EU stands for. What Naughtie and others missed, however, was the firmness with which Howard reaffirmed his party's opposition to the EU's constitution, euro and common foreign and defence policies, while pledging that Britain would pull out of its disastrous fisheries, agriculture and overseas aid policies.

If Mr Howard really means this, it would be like accepting the whole fish, then removing a couple of fillets and chucking the rest away. Either he is planning to set up easily the biggest row with the Community since Britain joined; or he is deceiving us on a scale not seen since Mr Heath took us in. Either way, it is a rather higher-risk strategy than the Today programme seems to have noticed.

Haddock best for our fishermen

Various people have recently suggested that, to support Britain's beleaguered fishermen, we should all eat more cod. They might be alarmed at the answer given by Ben Bradshaw, the fisheries minister, when Owen Paterson, the Tory fisheries spokesman, asked how much of the cod consumed in the UK is now landed by British registered vessels. The answer is 5 per cent. The remaining 95 per cent is caught by fishermen from Iceland, the Faroes, France, Spain and elsewhere. Fish-and-chips-lovers wishing to support British fishermen would do better to ask for haddock.