Always someone else's fault A rising tide of insularity

We react to environmental crises by blaming foreigners, but that is no solution, writes Geoffrey Lean Xenophobia is our reaction to environmenta l crises, but it is no solution, writes Geoffrey Lean Britain's xenophobic stand on beef and fish policy will solve nothing, writes Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
Aeschylus was right. "Everyone," wrote the father of drama, "is quick to blame the foreigner." He might have been writing a crisis management handbook for modern politicians, rather than a tragedy for Athenians of the 5th century BC. For during this sour and xenophobic summer there has been plenty of drama; indeed, Greek tragedyseems to have been running in repertory with Whitehall farce.

Another act was staged last week. It opened with outrage against "crafty Spanish fishermen" taking the Government to court for illegally detaining their boats because they were not sufficiently British. And it ended with the Cabinet deciding to shelve this summer's painfully negotiated cattle cull unless the rest of Europe gives guarantees on lifting the beef ban, thus setting itself on course for another continental collision over BSE.

The chorus was in full cry. "Brussels is beyond all reason", exclaimed the Daily Telegraph. "Britain should repatriate the [BSE] issue", urged the Times. The Government should "summon the nerve to defy Brussels and act for Britain", echoed the Daily Express. And in a full-page editorial with a picture of the Prime Minister apparently giving a Hitler salute, the Daily Mail called for resistance against "the remorseless erosion of our national sovereignty".

It has, of course, been going on all summer. The Germans have been accused of stealing our beef markets, and the Spanish of stealing "our" fish. Free-swimming cod, mackerel and hake have been given honorary British citizenship. "We cannot have a situation whereby UK fish are being taken by anyone other than UK fishermen," said fisheries Minister Tony Baldry last week. Commentators have inveighed against the "cruelty" of culling cattle to "appease German hysteria", for all the world as if they were not normally slaughtered at three to five years old.

It is clever stuff. By exploiting Aeschylus's maxim, the Government has spin-doctored attention away from its appalling mismanagement of both the fish and the beef crises. It has turned a history of neglect and bad government - and indifference to the long-term fate of both industries - into a tableau of an innocent Britain standing alone against unscrupulous foreigners.

And it has got away with it. The Labour Party has echoed the Government's line on both fish and beef. It even went along with the Prime Minister's policy of non-cooperation this summer which - launched to save Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, from angry backbenchers - did huge damage to Britain's relations with the rest of Europe without achieving any significant result.

And the original pro-Europeans, the Liberal Democrats, are climbing on the same bandwagon, with an eye to their fishermen constituents in the West Country and the beef farmers in Scotland and Wales. They are expected to attack the EU on both issues at their party conference. "This is not the time to bang the pro-European drum too loudly," said one of its senior MPs.

Yet, despite this unprincipled political consensus, the facts are clear. BSE is British-made. It arose when the Government, in its deregulatory fervour, eased rules for producing cattle feed. Ministers did little research and delayed taking counter-measures, while the disease spread through the national herd and into the food chain. Even when controls were introduced, they were not properly enforced: five years after the ban on offal and spinal cords, nearly half of British abattoirs were not implementing it; only this summer Birmingham health inspectors were finding the prohibited material still attached to joints in butchers' shops.

Britons have, to date, eaten more than 740,000 infected cows. The health consequences are unclear. There are still only a few cases of the new form of Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease, thought to be linked to BSE, offering hope that there will not be an epidemic. But it has a long latency period and no one knows how many cases are to come. Only last week Professor John Pattison, chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, refused to rule out his earlier upper estimate that 500,000 people might yet contract the disease.

The consequences for farmers both here and in Europe are already catastrophic. We exported the disease with contaminated feed, doubling exports of the feed to Europe even after it was banned at home. Leaked documents show that, far from sabotaging Britain, Brussels helped it to cover up the danger, deciding to "minimise the BSE affair by using disinformation". When the truth came out and beef markets collapsed, European governments, understandably having little faith in Britain's ability to eliminate the disease, rushed to protect their blameless farmers. But the Government, despite having itself insisted on export bans when less serious diseases hit livestock in other European countries, and despite remaining silent when the United States banned British beef years ago - treated this almost as a declaration of economic war.

Ministers and their supporters - and the other political parties - have been just as busy rewriting fisheries history. Fish stocks around Britain are close to collapse. Over-fishing is to blame, and British boats have played a large part in it. But under the new orthodoxy, "over-fishing", as John Redwood puts it, "came about when foreign vessels came to fish." Our fleet, it holds, is being decimated at the behest of Brussels in the face of unfair competition from continental vessels plundering the seas. Foreign fishermen, in the argot, "plunder".Their British counterparts, in Tony Baldry's words, "work hard, often in hazardous conditions, to earn a living". Tory MP Michael Brown predicts that "it will be the issue of fish that will break the camel's back" over Britain's EU membership, and the Government has already threatened to block further admissions to the EU until the fisheries rules are changed.

Yet the tonnage of Britain's fishing fleet, as the Government has itself had to admit, has almost doubled since the Common Fisheries Policy came into effect more than a decade ago, putting even more pressure on declining fish stocks. Britain, like the other EU countries, has agreed targets for reducing its boats, but has done less than almost any country to meet its promise. It has been losing out on its share of over pounds 1bn in EU money for compensating fishermen who decommission their boats. The Treasury opposed full uptake of the scheme because Britain would have had to pay a small proportion of the cost, thereby upsetting its public spending figures. Meanwhile, Spain, accused of "chicanery" in the Tory press, has cut its fleet more than was required.

"Quota-hopping" Spanish and Dutch boats, registered here and taking fish from Britain's quotas, do present a problem. Over 150 of them take nearly half the hake and plaice catch, and a third of the mackerel. But they can only do this because they have bought ships and quotas from British fishermen; willing buyers from willing sellers, operating within the free market that ministers have long told us not to restrain. And, anyway, the Government has said that it will not necessarily meet targets to reduce Britain's fleet, even if the issue of quota-hopping is resolved.

This is only one of a host of disputes. Last month Ireland took on Japanese ships fishing off its coast; Norwegian, Russian and Icelandic boats are contesting catches in the Barents Sea. Greece and Italy have sparred over swordfish, and Indonesian fishermen have burned foreign boats. These are the result of increasing scarcity; every one of the major fisheries has now reached or exceeded its natural limits.

They are just the first of a series of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. Water is the next likely casus belli. Twenty-six countries have less water than they need, and they are expected to be joined by 40 more over the next 30 years. "The next war in the Middle East," predicts Boutros Boutros Ghali, UN Secretary General, "will be fought over water, not politics."

World food reserves are lower than ever, and experts expect supplies to get tighter, especially as China becomes a major importer of grain. And global warming threatens a new class of conflicts as climates change and land becomes flooded or uncultivatable. The CIA is getting itself up to speed. Last month its director, John Deutch, undertook to increase the effort put into "environmental intelligence" even as budgets decline.

The tragedy is that global environmental crises can only be solved by international co-operation but, if the examples of BSE and fish are anything to go by, politicians will resort to jingoism, aiming to boost their standing rather than looking after long-term interests. Two and a half millennia ago, Aeschylus had the measure of that too: one of his recurrent themes was that hubris and the misuse of wealth leads to ruin.

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