Booker's NotebookSeptember 11 2005
The EU is pushing us closer and closer to China and away from AmericaJust how dangerously our Government is becoming ensnared in allowing the European Union to dictate Britain's foreign policy was highlighted by an extraordinary document signed up to in Beijing last weekend by Tony Blair, in his role as the EU's temporary president. Media coverage of the "8th EU-China Summit" concentrated on the fudged resolution of the fiasco over clothing imports. What was missed among the 26 points of the summit communique were those which showed how closely the EU is becoming allied to China as a "strategic partner" - politically and militarily as well as economically - in ways which threaten serious conflict with the USA.Not only is the EU now pledged to take China onto the management board of Galileo, its planned rival to the US GPS satellite system, which is to play a key role in the EU's drive to create its own "defence identity" independent of Nato and the US, but the EU leaders also pledged their support for Beijing's "one China" policy, by which it claims the right to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, if necessary by military means. This is, of course, potentially one of the most explosive flashpoints in world politics, since the US is committed to Taiwan's support.While the EU did express the hope that the "Taiwan question" could be peacefully resolved through "constructive dialogue", China "appreciated the EU's commitment to the one China policy and reiterated its principled position".When I put it to the Foreign Office that this appears to mark a decisive shift in British policy, I was given the curious response that our policy in recognising that Taiwan is part of China has not changed, but "we do not describe this as a 'one China' policy". Yet the wording of the communique issued in Mr Blair's name was unequivocal. In other words, whether or not the Foreign Office might wish to put it more tactfully, a "one China" policy is what he signed up to.Equally curious was the communique's claim that both sides were committed to "the protection and promotion of human rights". The sight of a British prime minister thus lining up with a government that is one of the most notorious abusers of human rights in the world, with its mobile execution vans and tens of thousands of political prisoners, would have been bad enough.But this coincided with the 10-year jail sentence given to the Chinese journalist Shi Tao simply for posting on the internet a document prohibiting the Chinese media from mentioning the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.Whether or not this agrees with Mr Blair's view of "human rights", his desire to identify with the EU is certainly leading him into strange company. The fact that he is doing so in the name of the rest of us ought to be provoking rather more questions than it has done.We pay for not buying BritishThe defence establishment continues its ever more curious attempts to discredit my revelations of the damage being done to Britain's national interest by the Government's stealthy drive to integrate our armed forces with those of the EU. The latest contribution, in last week's Sunday Telegraph letters column, came from Andrew Simpson, defending the Ministry of Defence's decision to buy 401 Panther utility vehicles built by the Italian firm Iveco, at a cost of £413,000 each.It was perhaps natural that Mr Simpson should wish to claim that my articles contained "gross errors" since, as he said, he was the MoD desk officer in charge of the Panther contract, and now works for Iveco, the winning bidder. But he failed to answer any of the questions that have made this contract so controversial.He did not, for instance, explain why the MoD was so anxious that Iveco should get the contract that it insisted that the Panther be added after the original short-list of bidders was closed. He did not explain why the MoD went to such lengths to pretend that the Panther was a British vehicle, built by BAE Land Systems, when only after repeated questioning did it emerge that it was almost wholly Italian.Mr Simpson did not explain that a serious problem with the Panther, an upgraded version of a design originally conceived in the 1970s, is that it is expected to fulfil too many contradictory roles. To carry out the same range of functions for the US Army, several quite different vehicles are being developed, arising out of a programme in which Britain was originally a joint partner.The Panther is thus a clumsy, one-size-fits-all attempt to meet all these different needs (to accommodate radio equipment, for instance, will necessitate removing two of its five seats) and, for what it offers, it is absurdly expensive.Less understandable was why Mr Simpson tried to defend the MoD's recent award of the British Army's biggest-ever trucks contract to a German firm, in preference to bids from two British-US consortia.It seems odd to assert that "impartial observers generally agree that the MAN vehicles selected were by far the best for the role" when among those highly critical of this choice were the National Audit Office, which found that in two crucial respects they did not match up to the Army's requirements.But such is the price that the Army and we must now pay for Mr Blair's headlong pursuit of what is known as the "European Defence Identity".No justice in parking 'court'Neil Herron is the campaigner who has shown that councils are illegally raising millions of pounds from motorists by failing to follow the correct procedures in setting up "decriminalised" parking regimes under the 1991 Road Traffic Act. When his own council, Sunderland, grudgingly admitted that it had continued to impose fines even after being formally told these were illegal, Mr Herron sought action.Who better to ensure that the law was being observed, he thought, than the National Parking Adjudication Service (NPAS). But when he telephoned them he was puzzled to find that he was getting nowhere (not least when, thanks to an NPAS official failing to close off his mobile phone, Mr Herron overheard himself being described as "mad" - for which he later received an apology).Mr Herron therefore investigated NPAS further. Although it presents itself as a wholly "independent" body, it turns out to be financed by 60p on every parking ticket issued by councils operating "decriminalised" regimes.On its website, the NPAS sternly instructs the public to tell the truth because it is a "court of law". When challenged as to why it seems to act as judge and jury in its own interest, however, it cheerfully insists that it is "not a court of law" after all.Thus, when local authorities are found to be in breach of the law on parking penalties, the public's only recourse is to a "court of law" which is not a court of law; which represents the very people who are breaking the law in the first place; and which is funded by money some of which itself has been raised illegally.BT's fault? NeverWhen last Sunday I had fun at the expense of the European Commission's London office for setting up one of those ingenious "closed loop" automated telephone answering systems that make it impossible to contact a human being, I little realised how quickly I was to be paid out. That evening I found my telephone was dead. In trying to contact BT's "fault management service" I was plunged into a nightmare of non-communication which was to last several days.My first effort, after punching dozens of keypad buttons in answer to automated questions, several repeated more than once, left me waiting in vain for an "adviser" (ie a human voice) for 45 minutes, listening 100 times to a robotic female voice tetchily explaining "We are very busy" (as if to imply that I was being ridiculously demanding).Over the next two days, as I threaded the electronic labyrinth a dozen more times, I was eventually given four contradictory explanations as to why my phone was dead (the fault was "at the exchange", "in the network", "close to your premises", "in your property").Only by upgrading from a residential to a business subscription did I eventually get a visit from an engineer, three days later, who solved part of the problem, followed two days after that by another charming engineer, Paul from Clonakilty, who finally resolved it. He explained, as none of the automated messages had done, that our area had been subject to a rash of lightning strikes, hence the abnormal pressure on the fault service.The contrast between the efficiency of BT's engineers, when one is finally allowed to contact them, and that of its unbelievably complex and time-wasting automated system is total. Since BT's business is communications, one can only describe the skill devoted to ensuring that we cannot communicate with it as amounting to a kind of genius.