Christopher Booker's Notebook
We need 60,000 new HGV drivers by 2005 Prepare for 'nuclear' war over Europe The stick and the carrot of the state The Maltese minnow wriggles too late
We must brace ourselves for March 23, 2005, and an upheaval on Britain's road network that will make the 2001 fuel-tax protests seem trivial. This is when a European Union directive will force lorry drivers to reduce their working time to 48 hours a week. Overnight, to provide the same service, Britain will need 60,000 more qualified drivers, and there is no way that they can be made available so quickly.
Deliveries to supermarkets, factories and petrol stations will be subject to disruption taking not days but years to resolve. Tens of thousands of trucks which currently work at night will be forced onto daytime roads, creating massive congestion for other motorists. The total cost of complying with the new law, which will affect Britain much more seriously than other EU countries, is estimated at £3.8 billion a year, to be paid for in higher prices for everything carried by road.
On Tuesday the Government will publish a consultation paper on how it proposes to implement EC directive 2002/15, restricting lorry drivers' working hours to 48 a week, averaged over four months. This is not their actual driving time, already strictly limited by another EU law, but also includes non-driving time, spent on such activities as waiting for trucks to be loaded. Britain has about 332,000 drivers, of whom those working full-time put in an average of 60 hours a week. To make up the shortfall when this is reduced to 48, Britain's haulage industry will overnight have to find another 60,000 drivers, even though they are already in short supply and it takes two years or more to train an HGV driver to the standard required by law.
These are the conclusions of the Road Haulage Association, based on an impact study of the new law carried out for it by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Roger King, the association's chief executive, points out that the directive will hit Britain much harder than other EU countries because of the peculiar structure of Britain's road haulage system. In Spain, for instance, 72 per cent of lorry drivers will be unaffected because they are self-employed. In France a much higher percentage of freight is carried by rail.
To get a clearer picture of the horrendous problems that operators will face under the new law, I spoke to Dillon Kent, who runs Draycote Continental, a Rugby-based firm with 36 trucks. To cover the same amount of work, he estimates he will have to expand his present loyal workforce by 27 per cent. But the consequences of the new legislation go much further. Existing drivers will not take kindly to being told that they must take a cut of £50 a week because they are not able to work the same hours.
Additional restrictions on night-time working will push many more trucks on to the roads in daylight, thus increasing congestion for other motorists. Supermarkets, reliant on round-the-clock deliveries to keep their shelves filled, will be particularly badly hit.
The only hope of keeping Britain moving, industry sources say, is that many drivers will turn to agency work, hoping to maintain wage levels by working 48 hours for one company, then making up the extra by working for another. If the Government seeks to avoid recriminations from Brussels, this will present the UK Health and Safety Executive with a huge enforcement problem. But at least Mr Blair will not complain. He knows that, for the privilege of being at "the heart of Europe", this is the sort of price we must learn to pay.
As the euro referendum is again postponed and clamour rises for a vote on the EU constitution, Downing Street is looking more keenly than ever at its so-called "nuclear option". This would mean holding the sole referendum that Mr Blair thinks he could win: one that offers the stark choice of staying in or leaving the EU altogether.
The Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, claims that this is threatening to backfire, because a new poll shows that 48 per cent would vote to leave anyway. But this, as I have reported before, is to miss the whole point of the "nuclear" strategy, which is that it would wrong-foot the Tories and all those who say "no" to the euro and the constitution but who still find leaving the EU the ultimate anathema.
On a straight "in" or "out" choice, Iain Duncan Smith, Business for Sterling, even the Daily Mail would have to crawl shamefacedly back into Mr Blair's camp and accept, as a result, the euro and everything else that they dislike. The only way for the Conservative Party to avoid being outflanked is to seize the initiative and put forward its own "positive" vision of Britain's relations with the EU, along the lines favoured by David Heathcoat-Amory, the Tory delegate to Giscard's convention.
By holding out the alternative of Britain continuing to trade freely with the EU but not travelling further down the road to political integration, the Tories could themselves make the running, in a way that might win overwhelming support. At the moment they seem to be reduced to such a state of jelly on "Europe" that they are just waiting to fall into Mr Blair's trap.
Julian Harman, a greengrocer in Camelford, Cornrwall, was one of the five "metric martyrs", found guilty of selling his fruit and veg in pounds and ounces. He was quite happy to sell tomatoes by the kilogram to any customer who preferred it, but none did. Mr Harman, having been declared a criminal for this harmless act, recently came up with a way that the state, he hoped, might make him some recompense.
He found he was unable to meet the rising local demand for high-class organic vegetables: the only supplier was having to bring the stuff on a 180-mile round trip from south Devon, which rather seemed to negate any "environmental" gain. So Mr Harman found a suitable two-acre field where, if he had some start-up funding of around £15,000, he could employ two people to create a market garden sufficient to supply all his needs.
For the funding, he thought he had found just the answer in a prospectus for the EU's "Objective One" programme for Cornwall. This promised tens of millions of pounds to build up the Cornish economy, by aiding small businesses to create 18,400 new local jobs. When he approached the relevant officials, they couldn't have been more positive. His proposition was just the sort of thing they were looking for. They could give him lots of money to pay consultants to advise on how to market his organic fruit and veg.
Mr Harman explained that he did not need help with marketing, because he would sell the produce through his shop. They in turn had to explain that to give help with actually producing food, rather than selling it, would be against the EU's rules. So there the matter rests. If Mr Harman wants organic carrots, they must still be hauled 90 miles by road to him.
When I was asked to launch the "No" campaign in Malta's referendum on EU membership four years ago, my main message was that the Maltese should beware of being a minnow swallowed by a whale. All sorts of fine promises would be made about how much influence they would exercise, but they should not believe all they were told.
Sure enough, they took no notice. After Brussels had spent millions of euros assuring them how wonderful it was all going to be, they voted to enter by 54 to 46 per cent.
Last week a leading "Yes" campaigner won big headlines when he came back from Brussels to say that things didn't look quite so rosy for Malta after all. Instead of six MEPs, the Maltese will have only four. They won't have a Commissioner. With a full-time President of the Council, the chances of a Maltese presidency are nil. Malta's influence will be little more than that of, say, a minnow swallowed by whale.
Following another recent study which showed that, far from being net beneficiaries of Brussels' largesse, the Maltese will end up having to pay a heavy financial price for entry, it looks as though they will have to learn the hard way that the EU is never what it promises to be. For Brussels, all that matters is that the minnow, having taken hook, line and sinker, has been engulfed.