Christopher Booker's Notebook
'Gold-plated' directive delivers shock to UK firms Iraq puts paid to the 'one voice' of Europe A degree of flexibility More chiefs than Indians
Another small but significant chunk of Britain's beleaguered manufacturing industry seems set to shut down next year when the Environment Agency imposes its own hugely costly version of a European Union pollution directive on several hundred firms involved in the process of metal finishing or electro-plating. Irving Struel, for example, employs 35 people near Cardiff providing metal coatings for a wide range of industries, from aerospace to computers. Now, thanks to the agency's over-the-top interpretation of the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) directive, he plans to close his business. Industry sources confirm that scores of other firms are likely to follow suit.
The importance of metal finishing, using dipping tanks to give metal coverings to other metals or plastics, can be seen in the fact that a modern car may contain 30,000 separate components treated in this way. One Airbus includes three million. The larger metal finishing firms pose no significant pollution problem. But what threatens their survival is that it will cost them up to £40,000 to carry out all the complex procedures required to obtain an Environment Agency permit to stay in business, putting them at a crippling disadvantage since many of their continental and smaller UK competitors will not have to meet these costs.
The first objection of the larger UK electro-plating companies to the application of the directive is that, by applying it to all firms whose dipping tanks exceed 30 cubic metres in total, the agency will create a two-tier industry. The smaller firms responsible for almost all the recorded pollution incidents will be exempt from the new law. The agency claims it is merely "copying out" the directive, but the original only refers to individual tanks of more than 30 cubic metres volume, which are rare. By adding one crucial word, "aggregated", the EA applies the law to any company whose vats have a combined volume of 30 cubic metres. As David Edwards of the Surface Engineering Association explains, "this pulls in some 70 to 80 per cent of companies which would otherwise be exempted".
Even more serious, in a highly competitive, trans-national market, is the fact that most larger continental firms already comply with the new regulations, which means they will soon be able to undercut British firms which must add in these new costs to their prices. The agency waves this aside by saying that "if German and French competitors have invested in superior technology already, it is to be expected that their additional costs are lower". What this ignores, Mr Edwards explains, is that the German and French firms received government funding to meet the cost of the regulations, which is not available in the UK.
The final charge made by Mr Struel and his colleagues is that the emissions standards demanded by the agency are so exacting - eg nickel emissions of no more than one part per million - that the cost of meeting them would be "astronomic". To this the agency responds that some Dutch and German companies already use an even higher nickel standard, 0.5 parts per million. But Mr Edwards points out that, according to the European Pollution Register, only one firm, in Holland, has yet met the 0.5ppm standard; "and as a firm which specialises in zinc, it only uses small amounts of nickel anyway".
The fate of our electro-plating industry provides another shocking example of what, appropriately in this case, is known as "gold-plating", whereby British officials add their own requirements to EU directives, making their impact on British industry very much more damaging than Brussels intended. Last week Mr Struel was looking for a tenant for the space that his company, Freeline, has occupied since 1981. His 35 employees will soon be looking for work. Much of Britain's metal finishing business will go abroad; and once again our officials will think they have done their duty by the nation.
A prize for the most forlorn contribution to the great Iraq war debate must go to Xavier Solana, the "High Representative" of the EU's "common foreign policy", for his suggestion that the chief lesson of the crisis is that the EU nations should between them have only one seat on the UN Security Council. "Imagine," he wistfully told Die Welt last week, "what influence Europe could have had if it had spoken with one voice."
"According to the Treaty of European Union," he explained, "all member states have an obligation to refrain from doing anything which goes against a common position in foreign policy. It is regrettable that precisely this was not followed by some member states."
What Mr Solana meant, of course, was that it would have been a jolly good thing if Mr Blair and Mr Aznar could have been forced to follow the foreign policy agreed by Mr Chirac and Mr Schroder. But the difficulty of realising his dream was confirmed last week when not even the normally sheep-like MEPs could agree a common line over Iraq. Of six resolutions proposed by each of the groups in the Brussels Parliament, not one could win a majority. As one Brussels observer put it, "this is the first time ever that Parliament has been unable to pass a resolution on a major international issue".
At least one benefit of this crisis seems to be that the vision of a common European foreign policy, which Valery Giscard d'Estaing wants to see enshrined in his EU constitution, is shattered forever. Well done, Mr Blair.
One of the chief ways in which the European Commission's London office spends our money is putting out a publication called Press Watch, purporting to reveal how the British press uses "the petty, the half-baked and the invented to extend their Europhobic agenda": a "constant diet of distortion and trivia" which "must surely have long-term consequences for the UK as its friends and neighbours forge ahead". The entertainment of this publication, which is regularly recycled by gullible newspapers such as The Guardian, lies in spotting the ingenuity with which it manages to bend the truth in trying to expose what it claims to be the "myths" peddled by others.
Some months back, my old sparring partner Geoffrey Martin was succeeded as head of the Commission's UK representation by his fellow-Northern Irishman Jim Dougal (after active lobbying on his behalf by Dougal's friend John Hume MEP). I rather mischievously asked the Commission to explain how Mr Dougal had apparently been given an exemption from the normally strict rule that its employees can only be given "A Grade" postings if they have a university degree.
The press office's reply provided a wondrous example of tip-toeing round the question. Applicants for this senior post, it said, had been "required to meet strict conditions of eligibility, in particular concerning educational qualifications". But it did not manage to add which university Mr Dougal attended.
"I hope this answers your query," the message concluded. Well, not exactly. But I very much hope that the next edition of Press Watch will explain why it is yet another "Euro-myth" that Mr Dougal should have been given such a highly-paid position without having complied with the Commission's "Staff Statute".
I have a friend working for the European Parliament who had to supply no fewer than 42 documents to show that he complied with the rules, including having to provide a photocopy of the electoral roll to confirm his home address. It would certainly be regrettable if the same rigour was not applied to Mr Hume's friend.
A recruitment advertisement for the Meat Hygiene Service, part of Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency, boasts that lucky applicants will become part of the team of "2,250 officials" whose job is to enforce EU hygiene regulations on Britain's "1,300 licensed meat premises". Since most of these are cutting plants and cold stores requiring only occasional visits, this means that most of the MHS officials concentrate their zeal on our 300-odd surviving slaughterhouses. This works out at around six officials for each business, making our abattoirs easily the most highly-regulated industry in Britain.
It is 10 years since the Danish government admitted that it employed 29,000 officials to regulate Denmark's 29,000 farmers, equating to one official for each farmer. Now, thanks to Sir John and his team, it seems Britain is again bidding to lead the world.