Don't bend to the Americans

Bizarrely, the banana has managed - in a modest sense - to unite the European Community
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The Independent Culture
BANANA, LIGHT of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Ba- na-na: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Ba. Na. Na.

Hell, it's no good. Even Nabokov, the master at wringing sympathy from the most unpromising of subjects, couldn't have lent gravitas to a discourse on the banana. When it comes to comedy fruit - and I am afraid that it has - the yellow crescent has got to be top... well, you know what.

It's hard to unpack exactly how the banana achieved its pre-eminent punning status, although obviously it's got something to do with the fruit's passing resemblance to a dysfunctional penis (demand for Viagra suggesting that this is becoming the norm) combined with the fact that there's not much else to do with it except shove it in your mouth (which goes some way to explaining Bill Clinton's interest). What use, anyway, is such idle speculation as the US and Europe square up for all-out war? Suffice to say that any European who fails to take the banana war seriously must have gone... well, you know what.

The banana war has its roots in European colonialism, with Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Spain and Portugal supporting EU protection of bananas from their erstwhile colonies in the Caribbean, the West Indies and Africa. These bananas are small and expensive since the countries that produce them do so within small, family-run companies without using mass farming methods and without much resort to pesticides and other agro- chemicals. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, however, prefer the larger, cheaper Latin American, or dollar, banana produced under the auspices of the US multinationals that have been operating ever since the US began propping up the banana republics.

There is, I feel, much to note from the fact that the banana war has been right at the heart of Europe since the single market's inception. Back in1957 the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, held up the Treaty of Rome for three days while a protocol was added excluding the strange fruit from the single market. Eurosceptics will perhaps find odd comfort in the knowledge that the bloody Germans started the banana war, though Europhiles may feel it dents their dignity that there's been a comedy fruit in the wings at most of the seminal moments in the EU's history. No wonder European commissioners "slip up" so often.

Even the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 can in part be attributed to bananas. East Germans didn't get them under Communism, and the first thing they wanted to buy as they flooded west was a banana. It become a powerful symbol of German unity (I kid you not); sales rocketed, and even now East Germans remain united with West Germans in their phenomenal, world- beating consumption of bananas. It was the huge demand for the fruit that led Chancellor Kohl to take the European Community to the Court of Justice in 1994, challenging a decision reached in July 1993 that limited exports of the low-cost Latin America banana that Germans prefer. The Germans lost, but, as is so often the case in Europe, a compromise was reached whereby a punitive tariff on Latin American bananas starts operating only after the import of 2 million tonnes per year.

But the Yanks are far from satisfied. In 1994, fed up with Europe's failure to inaugurate a free market in bananas, the US invoked section 301 of the new Gatt Treaty (which itself nearly came to grief over bananas). Having had no joy from this move, the US has now issued a list of EU products on which it will impose sanctions if Europe doesn't heal its banana split by February. Britain is at the top of the list, with a potential loss of 2,400 jobs if sanctions are imposed. Bizarrely, the hardest-hit companies will be Scottish woollen manufacturers. One knitwear firm, Clan Douglas, is already suffering, with a US order worth pounds 1m on hold until a decision comes from Washington as to whether sanctions will proceed.

But, even more bizarrely, the comedy fruit has managed - in a modest sense and quite definitely only briefly - to unite Europe. This latest skirmish in the banana war is the first stand-off between the euro and the dollar, and so far Europe is sticking together, threatening retaliatory sanctions if the US goes ahead with its unilateral trade attack (it's a delicious detail, too, that Fyffes, the Irish banana distributor responsible for the import of one in five European bananas, made European history this month by becoming the first-ever London-listed company to return its financial results in euros).

It is splendid to see Europe actually doing what it is supposed to do, even if it is over bananas, rather than merely paying lip service to the idea that Europe exists to challenge US hegemony. OK, so this is an exceptional case, which finds Britain uncharacteristically defending protectionism rather than the free market and sticking with Europe rather than allying itself with the States (Britain's love affair with the US is so strong that we even considered it when, a while back, we were invited to ditch Europe and join Nafta). And, OK, essentially this has all come about precisely because Europe itself has been so divided over the matter for so long. But it certainly bears scrutiny as a model of how Europe could find itself a role in the future.

Europe - some of its members willingly, others unwillingly - is acting out of guilt, protecting vulnerable countries that rely on not much more than cottage industry to keep from economic disaster.

The US, on the other hand, is acting out of arrogance. It is not protecting the interests of Latin America but the interests of US multinationals, which already command 70 per cent of the world banana market. How do they do that, even though they have to face such unfair restrictions in Europe? Largely because of environmentally unsound growing methods that rely heavily on pesticides and damage the health of the Latin American workers they claim to represent.

I find it quite refreshing that for once Britain is not in bed with America, persisting with the idea that no finer democracy can ever be built than that of the United States. Here is a country with desperate financial inequality, appalling literacy rates, a shocking disregard for international diplomacy, a phenomenal prison population, an unbelievable environmental record - which even includes trading in international pollution - and a stated desire to be the world's policeman, when what the world needs is a referee. Europe may look at times like someone's idea of a joke, but if it wants to become a superpower that can capture the imagination of its people, then here's a place where it can make a start. There really is an argument for challenging US hegemony just a little bit. Let all wars be banana wars. At least they're funny.