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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 02/01/2005)


Do you recognise your rulers?
Aerostats tethered by red tape
In a crisis we still think in feet and inches
America rises to the challenge

Do you recognise your rulers?

How many of these faces of our government can you identify? A New Year resolution for 2005 might be for us all to recognise just where the government of our country now lies. If government is measured by who has the power to put forward the laws which rule our lives, then to a great extent our rulers are not Tony Blair and John Prescott but the 25 commissioners of the European Union. There are few people in Britain who have even heard of most of these commissioners.

It is astonishing how much power these anonymous officials now exercise, over ever more areas of our national life. Even the Cabinet Office website admits that "around half of all legislation with a significant impact on business, charities or the voluntary sector now originates in Europe".

The true proportion is probably much higher. In the coming year, hundreds of new laws will come into force, costing us billions of pounds, over which our elected representatives in Westminster will have no influence whatever.

On paper, for instance, Margaret Beckett is one of our most powerful ministers, presiding over the environment, agriculture and fisheries. Yet in reality she exercises far less power than Stavros Dimas, the Greek environment commissioner, who alone has the right to initiate any environment laws – for example, those which produced the notorious "fridge mountain", or last summer's reduction in the UK's landfill sites for hazardous waste from 218 to 10.

Britain's fishing waters are now run by Joe Borg from Malta, our farming policy by Mariann Fischer Boel, a Danish farmer's wife. In terms of real power, our energy minister is now Andris Piebalgs, a Latvian former Communist.

Other former Communists on the commission include Laszlo Kovacs, the Hungarian in charge of taxation, and Dalia Grybuskaite, a Latvian educated in Leningrad in Soviet times, now in charge of the EU budget.

Nothing better brought home how little all this is understood in Britain than coverage of l'affaire Barrot, which blew up around the commission's vice-president, who had been convicted of illegally manipulating party funds in France. Even a senior Conservative MEP, Caroline Jackson, claimed that Jacques Barrot only occupied "the humble post of transport commissioner". In fact his portfolio could scarcely wield more power.

Commissioner Barrot has control over all aviation policy in the EU. He presides over road safety policy, not least through the Galileo satellite programme, which will be used to run road tolls, congestion charging and even speed limiters on vehicles. He will be in charge of the EU's proposed Railways Agency. He is also responsible for the Trans European Network scheme, supervising the spending of £400 billion by national governments, the most costly single investment programme the EU has ever undertaken,

Still the doings of our EU government are reported as "foreign news" and we go on pretending that our country is run by Tony Blair and John Prescott. It is time in 2005 that we got a little more clued up as to who really runs the show.

Aerostats tethered by red tape

There has been a further twist to the bizarre saga of the Shropshire firm run by Dr Per Lindstrand, the celebrated Swedish balloonist. Until 15 months ago, Lindstrand Technologies in Oswestry was the world's leading manufacturer of aerostats, giant helium balloons, costing £500,000 each, which carry up to 30 people 500 feet into the air on a fixed wire.

In September 2003, when the right to certify aircraft was handed over to the EU's new European Aviation Safety Agency, it became illegal, thanks to a quirk in British law, for Dr Lindstrand's aerostats to be sold anywhere in the EU, including Britain. This handed over a monopoly of the market to Lindstrand's only rival, Aerophile, run by its French founder, Matthieu Gobbi, who publicly boasted that EASA had "decided to adopt as the European standard many of the regulations that I helped develop".

Unless Dr Lindstrand's aero‐stats could quickly be certified by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority, now little more than a front-office for EASA, he would be forced to lay off much of his 90-strong workforce, or even move his operations abroad. When this absurd situation was first publicised by his MP, Owen Paterson, and through this column, the chairman of the CAA, Sir Roy McNulty, promised that the problem would be resolved by Christmas 2003.

After a whole year of Kafkaesque prevarication by the CAA, during which Dr Lindstrand lost millions of pounds in potential orders while Aerophile mopped up the market, Mr Paterson and I again challenged this scandalous victimisation. We were promised, both by the CAA and by transport minister, Charlotte Atkins, that action would be taken.

Dr Lindstrand has now been informed that this month he will have a visit from officials of the CAA's Flight Test Department. As he points out in a letter to Sir Roy McNulty, "this is laughable as there is no flight test to be carried out". His aerostats don't even have a pilot, because they simply rise and fall on a fixed wire. What irks him even more, as he loses hundreds of thousands of pounds a month, is that Sir Roy recently made a speech accusing the EASA of being unable to "get their act together", because they lack sufficient technical expertise.

"In all my 28 years as a lighter-than-air manufacturer," says Dr Lindstrand, "I have never been treated so badly". Meanwhile his rival Aerophile continues to enjoy its lucrative monopoly – thanks to the EASA, whose regulations its managing director is proud "to have helped develop".

In a crisis we still think in feet and inches

Another contrast brought out by reporting of the tsunami disaster has been between the two quite different ways by which people now try to convey the scale of such a terrifying phenomenon. Those viewing it from a distance, such as seismologists, have all spoken solemnly of walls of water "six metres high" roaring "up to a kilometre" inland. However, those directly caught up in this awful experience have almost without exception talked of the sea "withdrawing several hundred yards", followed by "a wave 20 feet high", which filled rooms "to within a foot of the ceiling".

It is as if we now speak in two different languages: the language of ordinary folk, and that of the ruling elite, abetted by politically correct BBC hacks (although, initially, even one or two of these, in the excitement of the moment, forgot to observe the orthodoxies).

This recalled the reporting of the Iraq war in 2003. After days when BBC journalists had dutifully spoken of US forces advancing "300 kilometres" towards Baghdad, or dropping "907 kilogram" (2000lb) bombs, John Simpson was so shocked by the sight of a US bomb dropping next to him that he told his audience it had fallen only "10 feet or 12 feet away from where I was standing".

As I observed at the time, I hope he had a stern note from the BBC's ever-vigilant metric police instructing him that, if in future he wanted to report a bomb falling only 10 feet away from him, he should describe this as "3,045 millimetres".

America rises to the challenge

There was a striking contrast between the initial American response to the tsunami catastrophe and that of the EU. Although President Bush came under fire for promising "only $35 million" (subsequently multiplied by 10), the more immediate US response was entirely practical. Two US Navy battle groups were sent from Hong Kong and Guam, fully equipped to mount a major disaster-relief operation.

These units include scores of helicopters, some of which were already yesterday searching for survivors, and landing craft capable of delivering huge quantities of supplies, particularly food and fresh water, directly to otherwise inaccessible beaches.

A fleet of the giant C-130 transport aircraft has already landed relief supplies, including 80,000 body bags, in Sumatra and Thailand. Thousands of military personnel, medical specialists among them, are on their way to Thailand, Sri Lanka and India to assist in relief operations.

Meanwhile the EU, which initially promised 3 million euros and "a visit to the areas affected… in the near future" by Louis Michel, the commissioner for humanitarian aid, plans this week to host a "donors' conference" in Brussels to discuss what to do next. As Dr Richard North observed in his daily EU commentary (www.eureferendum.blogspot.com), "the caterers are on high alert".


(Warmwell note: We don't wish to embarrass Mr Booker, but we have heard about his own generosity from a correspondent who refers to him as a major donor to the tsunami appeal.)