Christopher Booker's Notebook
Feta fiat floors Yorkshire dairy firm MEPs' report blasts handling of crisis Black Friday for fishermen On the up and up
Here is a heart-warming seasonal tale contrasting the different responses of two countries to a diktat from our masters in Brussels that feta cheese, made from the milk of sheep or goats all across Europe, can in future only be called "feta" when it comes from Greece.
Among scores of Europe's cheesemakers to whom this fiat came as a serious blow was Shepherds Purse of Thirsk, which has been making "Yorkshire feta" since 1987. Farmer's wife Judy Bell experimented on her kitchen table to develop a subtle, not-too-salty recipe, and Yorkshire feta, which has won a gold medal at the national Cheese Awards, is now a popular line in Tesco's and Sainsbury's. When the ban on non-Greek feta was announced, the firm calculated it would cost them #100,000 to re-establish their product under another name, to earn which they would have to sell #1 million-worth of cheese.
Like most products of Brussels bureaucracy, the progress of this edict has been tortuous. Initially, in 1999, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), at the behest of the French, German and Danish governments, threw it out, on the grounds that many countries other than Greece make feta. But, as Franz Fischler, the agriculture commissioner, explains, the European Commission then took the view, after "exhaustive analysis of the legal, historical, cultural, political, social, economic, scientific and technical information amounting to roughly 1,500 pages", that the issue should be re-opened. The "independent, highly-qualified Scientific Committee for Designations of Origin, Geographical Indications and Certificates of Specific Character" unanimously concluded that feta could only come from Greece.
Finally, Mr Fischler explains, after the "relevant regulatory committee" had been unable to reach agreement, the question was put earlier this year to the Council of Ministers. After they failed to come up with a decision within a three-month time limit, the Commission put the edict banning non-Greek feta into law; although, as a generous concession, firms that had been selling feta since 1987 (such as Shepherd's Purse) could have five years to wind up production.
Typically our Government's response was meekly to accept this diktat, as has been explained at length by Lord Whitty (who in one letter describes himself as "Minister for Food, Farming and Waterways", in another "Minister for Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy") to Austin Mitchell MP, who took up the cause of Yorkshire feta.
Equally typical, however, was the response of the French, normally the fiercest defenders of Brussels's right to protect regional product names. Anyone in the world is free to make Cheddar cheese. But the French are so combative over terms such as Champagne that they have even stopped British firms selling "elderflower champagne" and "champagne cider" (although they only learned la mithode champenoise from the Englishman who invented it in the 17th century). Earlier this month 5,000 French farmers demonstrated for several hours against the feta ruling in Millau, the heart of the region where French cheesemakers make 50,000 tons of feta a year. The French government is now to appeal to the ECJ to get the ban reversed.
Readers of The Telegraph may be cheered to see that the excoriating report on the foot and mouth epidemic that was presented to the European Parliament last Tuesday endorses many of the criticisms first aired in this column as the disaster unfolded. This is perhaps hardly surprising, since few people had more technical input into the MEPs' investigation than Dr Richard North, the research director for the Europe of Democracies and Diversities group in the EU Parliament, who was my co-author on the fullest account of the crisis yet published, Not the Foot and Mouth Report, which sold more than 30,000 copies.
The MEPs picked up almost every important failure by the Government, from rejection of the vaccination policy urged by the world's top veterinary experts to the illegality of the pre-emptive cull and the wholesale breach of animal welfare laws. Predictably the one area in which the MEPs pussy-footed was in their criticism of the European Commission for failing to ring alarm bells over the pitifully inadequate contingency plan submitted for Brussels's approval in 1993, which played a major part in ensuring the Government's inability to cope with the epidemic when it came.
Despite the mildness of the MEPs' comments on this crucial failure, it was telling that this was the one passage in their report that provoked anger from David Byrne, the commissioner responsible for foot and mouth, who twice told MEPs that he absolutely rejected any criticism on this point. The Commission must always be right. Considering that the Commission has also just issued its new draft directive on foot and mouth, making clear that any future epidemic will be handled completely by Brussels, its inability to admit it is ever wrong is alarming.
This is particularly worrying since, buried away at the end of the 125-page directive, article 88 gives Brussels blanket powers to order member states to do anything it chooses: including, if it so wishes, a repeat of the contiguous cull that resulted in the unnecessary destruction of milllions of healthy animals, and which the British Government did not have the legal power under the 1981 Animal Health Act to carry out anyway.
Now we understand why ministers were so desperate to bulldoze their new Animal Health Act through Parliament in the last session: to give them these powers before the new directive comes into force. But at least if there is a repeat of the 2001 disaster we shall no longer be able to blame British ministers. Next time their only role will be to obey the orders they are given from above.
Late on Friday afternoon, as the chaotic EU fisheries talks neared their climax, I was called from Brussels by a veteran of such negotiations to say "the Commission has today achieved a miracle". "There are representatives here of every fishing industry in Europe," said Dick James, the Northern Irish fishermen's leader, "and for the first time they are united in one thing: a complete hatred of the European Union. This is no way to decide the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people."
What made such unity even more remarkable was that the Commission had been trying to buy off opposition from one country after another: a major concession to the French here, 23 days a month fishing for the Danish industrial fleet there. The only country to get no concessions was the UK, as the Commission proposed restrictions so draconian that they could only have one purpose: to force northern Europe's largest remaining fleet, the 400 Scottish whitefish boats, off the sea and out of business.
Friday, December 20, 2002 will go down as the blackest day in the history of Britain's fishing industry: the day when, as a Cornish fisherman Mick Mahon put it to me yesterday, "the chickens really came home to roost". This was the moment which had been entirely predictable for years, when the 20-year transitional phase of the Common Fisheries Policy was due to come to an end and with it the concessions given Britain in 1982 as compensation for handing over 80 per cent of Europe's fish. Most of the British fleet would have to go, to make room for other countries, notably Spain and eventually Poland, to enjoy their right to "equal access".
Yet the Commission's campaign to dress all this up as just a matter of "saving the cod" was a triumph; swallowed by the media hook, line and sinker. Yesterday morning the BBC's Farming Today spoke of the possibility that 80,000 British jobs could be lost, and of fishing communities such as Peterhead and Fraserburgh becoming "ghost towns". But there on the Today programme was our fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, now hated by the fishermen almost as much as Edward Heath, prattling away about how "we" must take these measures to save the cod, scarcely mentioning Brussels's part in the proceedings at all. It has been a tragic week not just for our fishermen but for the truth.
Some special Alastair Campbell award should go to Lewis Macdonald, Scotland's deputy transport minister, who recently had the unpleasant task of announcing that deaths on Scottish roads rose last year by six per cent. Mr Macdonald explained that this represented "significant progress" towards achieving the Scottish Executive's target of a "40 per cent reduction" in road deaths by 2010.