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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 04/07/2004)

At the throttle
Global repositioning
Repeat offenders
Gutted and battered

At the throttle

When it is perfectly legal in British law to drive your vehicle at 70 mph, how can it become an offence under EU law, punishable with a fine of up to 5,000, for you not to have prevented your vehicle travelling at 62.5 mph? Such was the conundrum recently presented to Hugo Miller, who runs a small coach company in Horsham, Sussex, when, on a visit to Birmingham, he was served with a "prohibition notice" by an official of the Vehicle and Service Operator Agency, stating that he was in breach of EC Regulation 3821/85.

The problem, according to the official, was that the "speed limiter" on Mr Miller's vehicle, the device required under EU law to restrict all coaches built after 1987 to a maximum 62.5 mph, might be faulty. But when Mr Miller looked at Regulation 3821/85, it made no mention of speed limiters. It is concerned only with tachographs, the device to record driving hours, distances and speeds to ensure that commercial drivers comply with EC regulations.

There was nothing wrong with Mr Miller's tachograph, which had only recently been checked. But it did seem to show that one of his two coaches might have been driven at more than the 62.5 mph, which the limiter should have ensured was his maximum speed. There was no suggestion that Mr Miller had broken the UK speed limit. But because his limiter appeared to be faulty, he was ordered to put it right by a notice claiming that he had broken a different EC regulation which makes no mention of speed limits.

Curiously, Mr Miller had been concerned by the anomalies surrounding EC rules on speed limiters as far back as 1992. In that year, following an enquiry to his MP, he had a letter from Christopher Chope, the then transport minister on the subject. Mr Chope explained that, although the UK government was strongly opposed to the introduction of speed limiters, it had been outvoted in Brussels under qualified majority voting.

As a result of that vote, one of Mr Miller's two coaches, built in 1986 and therefore not covered by the EC legislation, is free to drive at 70 mph in the fast lane of a motorway, while the other, built in 1988, is limited to 62.5 mph (equating to the EC limit of 100 kilometres per hour). Since last Friday, when he was able to fit this speed limiter with a new control unit, at a cost of 900, he has again been free to use it to earn his living.

It is not just the drivers of coaches and heavy goods vehicles who may soon be affected by this kind of hassle. Under a new EC directive, speed limiters are now to be required for much smaller commercial vehicles. And, as was reported last week, there are now moves to introduce them for all new vehicles, including private cars. So eventually we may all be limited to driving at speed limits set by the EU, even if these are less than the limits specified by UK law. Unless, of course, as also seems likely, all speed limits across the EU are harmonised by Brussels - at which point, some might think, common sense will at last prevail. Mr Miller, I suspect, would not share their view.

Global repositioning

A press conference tomorrow will attempt to raise the alarm on how the "common European defence identity" is pushing to breaking point Britain's unique defence and intelligence relationship with the United States. At the invitation of the Bruges Group, an all-party Eurosceptic think tank, Gerald Howarth, the Tory spokesmen on defence procurement, and Dr Richard North will explain the two issues involved.

The first is the Pentagon's instruction to US contractors not to release vital "source codes" to Britain for the joint strike fighter, for fear this information might be passed on to Britain's EU allies.

The second, explained by Dr North in a new Bruges Group pamphlet, is US alarm over the EU's Galileo satellite project, which will be a direct rival to America's GPS (global positioning satellite) system.

Although the EU insists that Galileo is for civilian use only, the project's underlying purpose is to provide a military rival to GPS, which could be of huge value to America's potential enemies, including Russia and China, which has a 20 per cent share in Galileo. The US is so worried by this threat to its military security that it is discussing a plan to spend $3 billion on a jamming system, and even to put up satellites that could blow Galileo out of the sky.

Britain is helping to foot the bill for Galileo, which will be under the personal control of the EU's "foreign minister", and the US is sufficiently alarmed by our support for the project that, as is now being openly stated in Washington, this could prove the end of any "special relationship". Mr Blair must now decide which way Britain will jump.

Repeat offenders

Radio 4's PM programme last Tuesday reported on "Operation Hornbeam", a two-day "simulation exercise" staged by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to test its contingency plans for dealing with a foot and mouth crisis. What the BBC did not tell us was that this was only being staged last week because on Thursday the EU's 226-page directive on foot and mouth came into force, laying down in exhaustive detail how any future epidemic must be handled.

The reason for this directive was to avoid any repetition of the 2001 fiasco when, under EC law, Britain should already have been in a position to use emergency vaccination, and thus avoid the mass slaughter of nine million healthy animals in a disaster that cost 8 billion. Next time, says Brussels, Britain must be prepared to use vaccination as a measure of first resort.

According to the Defra simulation, PM reported, we were in "Day Seven" of an epidemic that had already spread to four different parts of the UK. But there had only been 11 separate "incidents" (in 2001 the disease had established itself in 57 places before it was identified). And so far Defra was considering a limited vaccination programme, confined to cattle in just two of the areas affected. Meanwhile we heard Defra proudly announcing that 17,400 animals had already been slaughtered.

In other words, there was abundant evidence that Defra has not begun to get the point. Its officials have "learned nothing and forgotten nothing". If foot and mouth strikes again, we can look forward to a repeat of the chaos we saw in 2001. All this, of course, passed the BBC by.

Gutted and battered

Britain's beleaguered fishermen have not taken kindly to the news that Ireland is using EU cash to equip its whitefish fleet with 57 new vessels. This comes when, under ruthless pressure from Brussels, more than 150 Scottish whitefish boats, two thirds of the fleet, have in the past two years had to be consigned to the breakers' yard. Nor did it help to learn, as I reported last week, that, to buy Polish support for the new EU constitution, Brussels is to give Poland billions of euros to modernise her fishing fleet, so that it can enjoy "equal access" to UK waters.

At least our fishermen could enjoy a wry smile last week at an article in The Daily Telegraph by the newspaper's environment editor, Charles Clover, who was holding forth on the crisis in world fishing. He painted a lurid picture of how the fish stocks of the world are being devastated by nets a mile long, attached to heavy iron beams that destroy everything living on the sea floor. It was not a good start for Mr Clover in launching his own recipe for saving the world's fish that he should have confused beam trawls, rarely more than 40 ft wide, with drift nets. This confusion hardly lent credence to his belief that we must look to the EU to find a remedy to this crisis through its Common Fisheries Policy.