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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 19/06/2005)

Defra won't spend 0.25m on bees

For 12 years an almost wholly unreported disaster has been creeping up on Britain's countryside, which officials in Whitehall and Brussels now seem determined to bring to a head. Since 1993 the parasitic varroa mite, which originated in Indonesia, has all but wiped out Britain's wild honey bee population. Because of the vital role played by overwintering honey bees in the pollination of crops, fruit trees and much else, this puts our 25,000 domestic beekeepers, and their billions of bees, in the front-line. Yet they have now been dealt a devastating double blow by the bureaucrats.

As part of a series of across-the-board cuts, Margaret Beckett's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is trimming 250,000 from the 1.25-million annual budget of its Honeybee Health Programme, and reshuffling the remainder. One result will be the loss of half its 40-strong staff of bee health inspectors. Unlike most inspectors, these win nothing but praise from those they deal with for their crucial role in monitoring bee diseases and advising beekeepers on how to keep at bay such deadly pests as varroa and foul brood.

The chairman of the British Beekeepers' Association is Dr Ivor Davis, a retired physicist who runs an IT consultancy with his wife Jan from their home in Congresbury, Somerset. He pays tribute to the value of Defra's programme, but warns that the planned cuts mean that it will no longer be possible to provide a nationwide service. "We shall inevitably lose a great many bee colonies which, with proper husbandry, could be saved," he says.

As if this illustration of why the ministry has been dubbed "Not only Defra but Blindra" were not enough, the beekeepers now face another assault from officialdom, in the guise of EC directive 2004/28, laying down new rules on the supply of veterinary products. No longer will they be allowed to buy the remedies they need to keep bee diseases in check direct from specialist suppliers. Instead, all medicinal products will have to be prescribed by vets, doubling their cost. Furthermore vets will have to make regular inspections of all hives, even though the average vet knows nothing whatsoever about bees.

Dr Davis calculates that to inspect his own colonies alone will take two to three hours (he playfully suggested to his own vet that this would have to include time for him to be instructed by his client on bee diseases). With vets themselves estimating their charges at up to 200 an hour, this, along with the mass of new record-keeping required, will add hugely to the costs of a hobby which produces only marginal profits. Dr Davis fears that "we shall see many beekeepers drop out" - when numbers are only just recovering after nosediving with the onset of varroa.

Even the Government concedes that the value of pollination to British agriculture alone is 120 million a year (other estimates are much higher). But with wild bees gone, and other pollinators not appearing until after many fruit trees and crops are in flower, it seems crazy to risk losing thousands more beekeepers and millions of bees - all to save 250,000, and to show dutiful compliance with a directive many other countries will ignore.

The death of Europe has been much exaggerated

The headline story of the week may be the sight of the "European project" plunging into the greatest shambles of its 50-year history. The constitution may be dead, the EU's budgetary plans frozen in a state of total impasse, but it is salutary to remind ourselves how the mighty "project" rolls on regardless.

For a start there are all the ways in which the (dead) constitution is already being implemented, regardless of the fact that it may never now be ratified. Since last autumn, the EU has been drawing up its own 7-billion-a-year space programme, even though this is only authorised by the (dead) constitution.

The Fundamental Rights Agency is being set up in Vienna to enforce the Charter of Fundamental Rights, even though the charter itself, as Part II of the (dead) constitution, has no legal status.

John Bruton, the fomer Irish premier, is already parading around in Washington as "the European Union's Ambassador to the United States", even though the setting up of the EU's own diplomatic service was only a provision of the (dead) constitution. On Thursday, in a historic but little-noted judgment, the European Court of Justice ruled that the "Community" now has power to dictate on the judicial procedures to be followed by all 25 member states - another provision of the (dead) constitution.

We are told by ministers such as Adam Ingram that the excuse for setting up the European Defence Agency last January, designed to play a central role in welding together all the EU's armed forces in a single organisation, was Article 14 of the Treaty on European Union (in fact, if they look more closely, they mean Article 17). But why, if they already had treaty authorisation for doing so, was it then necessary for Article 41.3 of the (dead) constitution to use the future tense in saying that "a European Defence Agency shall be established"?

All this is in addition to countless other examples of "creeping integration", using powers handed over under former treaties. The new fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, explains in an interview how the Commission now plans to take complete control of fisheries policy, all but eliminating any input from national politicians. This means that a Maltese apparatchik, whom I met some years ago when he was the island's foreign minister, now has far greater power over the fishing waters round Britain's shores than anyone in the UK. Then, of course, there is the continuing torrent of directives still passing through the system, also under existing treaties: such as the "traceability" directive under which members of the Women's Institute are being told they must keep detailed records of where they acquired all the ingredients going into their jams and chutneys.

Last Thursday Anthony Hilton, City editor of the Evening Standard, let out a shout of horror, under the headline "An EU monster of madness", after examining the implications of the Markets in Financial Instruments directive (Mifid). This proposes such ludicrous regulatory burdens on finance houses that the City faces a bill of 1.2 billion just for new IT alone. "Huge chunks" of business will be relocated outside the EU where the rules do not apply.

For some reason last week I was reminded of the old joke about how "Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off". The Constitution may seem to have toppled into the basket below the guillotine. But that "project" will still be walking and talking, destroying liberties and livelihoods across the EU, for many years to come.

Too many rules spoil the cooks

Admirers of the much-vaunted "social model" which the French wish to see imposed on the rest of Europe do not include Richard Binns, who produces useful little gastronomic guides to rural France (available through www.richard-binns.co.uk). On a recent research trip, he says, "I visited 11 restaurants, all within an hour of the Mediterranean.

"Tired of paying 40-50 per cent of employees' gross earnings in tax to the state, fed up with the 35-hour week, sickened by the eager willingness of employees to seek rewarding benefits like sick pay, angered at having to give staff up to six weeks holiday and 20 public holidays a year on full pay, five of the chef patrons had decided enough was enough."

Three Michelin-starred owners had given up that coveted status, sacked all their staff and were now cooking themselves, serving only limited choice menus, with wives or family running the "front of house".

A fourth patron had stopped serving lunches except on Sunday. A fifth had sacked everyone except his young chef and, doing everything else with his wife, was now content to accept fewer bookings. "If Chirac thinks he can devise a successful strategy based on the French social model," says Mr Binns, "he is living in cloud-cuckoo land."

Fine words

"I really believe the French and the Dutch did not vote No to the constitutional treaty." Luxembourg's premier Jean-Claude Juncker, winner of the hotly-contested "Quote of the Week" award.