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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 12/06/2005)

'Europe' will stretch from back-roads to outer space

The media last week were filled with Alistair Darling's plans to impose a system of road tolls, using satellites to charge motorists between 2p and 1.34 a mile for using our roads. The BBC, showing a picture of the US global positioning satellite system (GPS), assured us the technology was all in place to make our transport minister's scheme viable, and that it would help cut congestion on Britain's roads and was altogether wonderful.

What neither Mr Darling, the BBC nor anyone else bothered to explain was that his plans are only part of an EU-wide scheme that has been planned for several years, using the EU's own satellite system Galileo, and that an important part of its purpose is to provide the EU with an independent source of income worth billions of euros a year.

It was in April 2003 that, to quote the website of the European Space Agency (a partner in Galileo, but not a "Community institution"), the European Commission first "published a proposal that all vehicles should pay road tolls electronically", based on "Galileo, Europe's planned satellite navigation system". The Department for Transport's own website includes a 2003 consultation document on the need for a harmonised, Galileo-based system of road-tolls throughout the EU. This was confirmed by EC directive 2004/52 on the setting up of a "European electronic toll service", designed to use Galileo once it has been put in place by French Ariane V rockets in 2008.

The difference between the US GPS system and Galileo is that the American system is free to all users. Galileo, however, has always been designed to pay its way by charging users, many of which, such as aircraft flying in EU air space, will have no option. Another key purpose of Galileo, although this is still downplayed, will be to provide the EU's armed forces with a satellite navigation system independent of the USA, which is why China has bought a 20 per cent share in Galileo.

The EU has so far been careful not to spell out the details of how it will take a share of the proceeds from its "European electronic toll service", which like so many EU projects will be administered by "national authorities". This is why, like many ministers before him, Mr Darling can pretend that road tolls are simply a British idea. It is this deliberate practice of concealing how many national policies are now dictated by "Europe" which gave rise to the description of the EU as "the elephant in the room": a presence so vast that everyone must pretend it is not there.

Not least among the complexities of this hugely ambitious project is whether it can be made to work at all. It would require an army of officials to enforce, including many of the 200,000 people to whom the Commission boasts it will give employment. Even then, according to many experts, the satellite-linked electronic boxes in every vehicle, which the system will depend on, will be only too easy to disable - for example, with a piece of metal foil. Mr Darling's scheme may eventually turn out to be a "white elephant in the room".

The superstate is far too big to wait for 'the people'

"Let me make it clear that there is no plan, proposal or intention to slip elements of the constitutional treaty through by the back door," Jack Straw told the Commons last Monday, in response to the charge that many provisions of the treaty are already being implemented before it is ratified. He was then asked by Bernard Jenkin MP why, in that case, the EU had already set up its European Defence Agency, "a central provision of the constitution".

Mr Straw replied: "The defence agency is not in the treaty." Yet there it is, Article I-41.3 of the constitution giving legal authorisation for the setting up of the "European Defence Agency". This, without waiting for the constitution, was launched last January to play a hugely important role in planning and co-ordinating "a single EU defence identity".

The truth is that, on all sides, implementation of the constitution is busily rolling forward, obviously on the assumption that there was no need to wait until the treaty became law. Caught out by the French and Dutch "No" votes, ministers and officials have no recourse but to indulge in hopelessly disingenuous prevarication, as Mr Straw did with his subsequent claim that the defence agency was somehow authorised by a vague aspirational clause in the Maastricht Treaty committing the EU leaders eventually to frame a Common Defence Policy.

Mr Straw, a lawyer, must be aware that a vague aspiration is not the same as a legal authorisation. Similarly, last Wednesday, when EU ministers held a "Space Council" in Luxembourg to plan "a European space policy", they were acting illegally, in that the only authorisation "to draw up a European space policy" is contained in Article III-254 of the Constitution.

In other words they had no legal power to do what they were doing, committing EU taxpayers to spend 10 billion euros (7 billion) a year. This is twice the size of the UK budget rebate which Mr Chirac and others are so keen should be taken off us because the EU is so strapped for cash.

When ministers are caught acting illegally in this way, what do we expect them to do? Come clean and admit they have made a mistake? Or just lie about it?

Much easier to take the second course. But whether it is wise to base our system of government on such institutionalised dishonesty is another matter.

You could not have a clearer example of the true workings of our Government than the visit that a British MP is to make to Cologne next month, to plead with a senior EU official to save a world-beating business in his constituency from ruin at the hands of British civil servants (see story right). The relevant British minister, aptly named "Buck", finding that she no longer has control of the relevant officials, has washed her hands of the affair.

We get no bang at all from our Buck

For nearly two years, in conjunction with this column, Owen Paterson, the MP for North Shropshire, has been battling to resolve the Kafka-esque bureaucratic impasse which threatens the survival of the Oswestry firm run by the Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand. The problem arose in 2003 when power to certify aircraft was handed over to the new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Overnight it became illegal for Dr Lindstrand to sell his most successful product, the HiFlyer, a giant, passenger-carrying helium balloon which rises up and down on a wire operated by a winch.

This was because, thanks to an absurd quirk of UK law, the HiFlyer, 23 of which have been sold around the world, was classified not as an aircraft but as a "fairground ride". Under the new regime, he therefore had to get his HiFlyers certified all over again. For 18 months he was put through a bureaucratic mill by the Civil Aviation Authority, which demanded 48,000 from him for the privilege of still not being certified.

In March, thanks to the intervention of Euro-MP Ashley Mote, the certification director of the EASA, Dr Norbert Lohl, personally signed that long-sought-after airworthiness certificate, saying "the EASA is in the business of providing solutions". But the CAA officials didn't give up. They now objected that Dr Lindstrand didn't have a certificate to cover his winch - and his products are therefore still unsaleable.

An angry Mr Paterson has arranged to take Dr Lindstrand to see Dr Lohl in Cologne on July 7, in the hope that this absurd mess can be sorted out once and for all. As a courtesy he invited a British minister to accompany him. The junior transport minister, Karen Buck, said she was aware that Dr Lindstrand had had "problems", but since there was nothing she could do about it, there was little point in her going along. If she admits that, as a minister, she no longer has power to do the job she is paid for, why is she paid at all?

Straw poll

"There is a constitution and there will be a referendum." So pronounced a defiant Jack Straw last Thursday to the television cameras. Before readers get too excited, however, they should note he was speaking in Baghdad.