Diplomacy that failed with cheese and biscuits

THE LIST of products selected by the United States includes everything but the kitchen sink: sweaters, biscuits, bed linen, candles and pecorino cheese.

The sad story of how pecorino cheese made it to the list tells a lot about the miserable background to the dispute, which represents a failure of diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic going back a decade. When the US decided to retaliate for what it saw as European obduracy, it wanted a list that covered each European Union country, and which would cost Europe as much as the banana rules cost American companies.

It picked easily identifiable products so that individual companies would be hurt badly, scream at their governments and pressure them to back off from defending bananas. The argument is simple: who has most political clout in Britain, the banana importers or Pringle sweaters?

Some countries were excluded, since their governments were favourable to the US arguments. The Germans, Danes and Dutch all prefer the bigger and cheaper "dollar" bananas over the Caribbean varieties.

The US tactic is one of divide and conquer.

When it came to finding a Greek product, the only thing that came readily to mind was feta cheese, according to The Wall Street Journal.

So on to the list went sheep's cheese, which dragged in a small group of Italian producers of pecorino, a toothsome hard cheese that goes particularly well with a few slices of pear and some walnuts. Bananas, it has to be said, would not complement pecorino.

So without further ado, the pecorino producers found themselves in the middle of a trade war. Embarrassingly for the US, The Wall Street Journal discovered that among the main producers for export was a small farm in the Mugello region near Florence, which is also a shelter for abused children.

The US banana industry had ended up by harming 60 disturbed children, whose only crime had been to produce a dairy product. But then in the tough world of interna- tional trade, that is just hard cheese.

And so, every EU country had something put against it: sweaters from Britain, handbags from France, Parma ham from Italy and so on.

This is a tried and trusted technique, adopted by the US in many other trade wars: the great frozen chicken war, the pasta conflict, and other historic battle honours sewn on the banners of the United States trade representative.