Christopher Booker's Notebook
British balloon firm punctured by Brussels Ear tags too much to bear Reality hits EU recruits Victory for Nelson
As of next week, a world-beating British firm owned by the Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand will be unable to sell its most successful product anywhere in the European Union. This will give its only competitor, a Franco-German firm called Aerophile, a monopoly in Europe, forcing Mr Lindstrand to lay off up to 60 per cent of his 90-strong workforce and perhaps even shut down.
Lindstrand Balloons in Oswestry, Shropshire, is run by the man who holds the world balloon altitude record and who became famous for his flights with Richard Branson. It is the world's leading manufacturer of "aerostats", tethered helium balloons that cost £500,000 each and can carry 30 passengers up to 500 ft. There are now Lindstrand HiFlyers permanently stationed at sites around the world, from the Niagara and Victoria falls to China and Japan, and they carry millions of passengers each year.
The disaster threatening the company arises from the fact that on September 28 the regulation of air safety in the EU is taken over from national governments by the new Brussels-based European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa). Under EU rules aerostats will have to be certified as "aircraft" - and a bizarre quirk in the law will render Mr Lindstrand's products illegal.
The extraordinary anomaly, which the Easa and the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have made no effort to resolve, arises from the fact that, under UK law, the CAA can certify Mr Lindstrand's balloons as aircraft while they are free-flying, but when the same balloons are tethered they must be licensed by the Health and Safety Executive as "amusements" or "fairground rides". Under Franco-German law, Aerophile's vehicles are certified as aircraft whether free-flying or tethered. So until the Easa devises its own set of standards - which could take years - Aerophile will be able to sell its "aircraft" but Mr Lindstrand's identical machines will be illegal.
What makes this indefensible is that CAA officials have been aware of the legal discrepancy for four years, since Mr Lindstrand had problems selling his HiFlyers in Germany. Yet they have never raised with Easa officials the question of what Mr Lindstrand calls "the worst injustice I have ever encountered in my 27 years as a lighter-than-air manufacturer".
Last week, in a last-minute bid to avert a crisis, Mr Lindstrand's MP, Owen Paterson, tabled 33 parliamentary questions to transport minister Kim Howell. But the CAA seems oblivious. Ten days ago, the CAA's chairman, Sir Roy McNulty, wrote a chillingly bland letter to Mr Lindstrand, admitting that "as from September 28 you will no longer be able to market your aerostat", but assuring him that when the Easa does gets round to producing its own standards, it will be easier for him to sell throughout the EU.
It might seem apt that the world's largest aerostat, made by Aerophile, flies over the centre of Brussels - as if to celebrate the EU rules that will eliminate Aerophile's only competitor. Last week I proposed a solution to the CAA: that the certification of Mr Lindstrand's balloons as aircraft be extended to cover them when they are tethered. The response was that the CAA "is ready to act quickly to issue the required certificates immediately after September 28". However, it will no longer have the power to issue those certificates until the Easa devises new standards. Game, set and match to Aerophile.
It is not often British officials go out of their way to show that an item of EU legislation is completely unworkable. But this what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done with a proposal from the European Commission's health and consumer safety directorate, known as Sanco, (in full, "Direction generale de la sante et de la protection des consommateurs"), run by David Byrne. This draft regulation "on establishing a system for the identification and registration of ovine and caprine animals" lays down, in the name of "traceability", that all sheep and goats in the EU must carry a 14-digit plastic tag in each ear, so that each time an animal is moved its number can be recorded.
As any farmer would immediately recognise, this proposal is insane. Sheep do not like plastic tags being pinned in their ears, and do anything to get rid of them. At least 15 per cent of tags get lost, which means that each time a hill farmer with 1,000 sheep scattered over 50 square miles of moorland finds animals without tags, he must round up his entire flock and copy down every 14-digit number to see which are missing. How could a market such as Longtown in Cumbria, with a throughput of tens of thousands of sheep a day, record millions of digits in a few hours?
The Tory MEP Neil Parish, himself a farmer, then discovered that Defra had costed up Sanco's proposal. Allowing three minutes for each tagging or check on a number, with labour costs of £12 an hour, Defra calculated that the basic cost of the scheme to the average UK sheep farmer would be between £13,000 and £16,000 a year. Sheep farmers' current annual incomes average £11,136.
There are 67 million sheep movements a year, so copying the digits would take 3.35 million hours, totalling £40 million. Replacing lost tags would cost another £14 million. Adding further costs, such as on-farm record-keeping (£8 million), and Defra's figures show that scarcely a sheep farmer in Britain could stay in business.
Yet when Mr Parish and his fellow MEPs on the European Parliament's agriculture committee recently quizzed no fewer than eight of Mr Byrne's officials on what they thought they were doing, it was clear the officials knew nothing about sheep (the regulation merely takes a previous version referring to cattle, changing "bovine" to "ovine" throughout). It was equally clear that the officials had no intention of changing a regulation that will make sheep farming virtually impossible.
After a multi-million-pound propaganda blitz by Brussels, almost all the countries applying for EU membership have now voted in favour. Already stories are coming in, however, of how their peoples are waking up to the extent to which, after being told of all the benefits of life in the EU, they were hoodwinked as to its realities.
In Malta, much anger has greeted the discovery that a secret condition of entry will be a drastic reduction in one of the island's biggest economic concerns, the building and repairing of ships in its famous dockyard. The government omitted to mention during the referendum campaign that Brussels was insisting that itbe severely scaled down because of an "excess of dockyard capacity" elsewhere in the EU.
Hungarians were shocked last week to hear of the closure of one of their most successful export businesses. On Friday, 70 employees of a company selling hand-made Kashkaval sheep's cheese to the Middle East were given their cards because David Byrne's Sanco officials had ruled the process was not sufficiently mechanised, and it would cost more than the firm could afford to buy the necessary machinery.
What central Europeans will make of the proposal by Mr Byrne, a fanatical anti-smoker, for a ban on smoking in public places and workplaces throughout the EU scarcely bears thinking about. When asked to sign up next year to an EU constitution on which they were not consulted, those Hungarian and Polish smokers may not be quite so keen.
Last April I reported on a remarkable battle by a mixed English and Asian community in the Lancashire town of Nelson to save 400 stone-built terraced homes from being bulldozed to make way for a vast council redevelopment scheme. Despite John Prescott's efforts to overrule their wishes, the brave ministry inspector came up with a second report, even more trenchant than his first.
Last Thursday the mass-clearance order was withdrawn. Thus ended an admirable campaign. What is vital now is that those residents are properly consulted as to how their cruelly blighted area can be put back on its feet again.