Leading article: The E.coli outbreak has exposed flaws in Germany and in Europe

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After four weeks of investigations, 29 deaths and more than 3,000 reported cases, German scientists appear finally to have identified the source of the country's E.coli outbreak: bean sprouts from a farm not a million miles away from Hamburg.

Unfortunately for Germany, and for Europe, identification of the likely source might end a chapter, but it does not end the story.

Germany's response defied the country's postwar image many times over, and not in a good way. A country admired for its exemplary standards of orderliness and regulation could have been expected, by its own citizens and abroad, to mount a model response to a public health emergency of this kind. The assumption would have been that strict procedures were in place, and that they would be followed rigorously and without panic to the letter. If that is so, however, the German authorities made a very un-German hash of communicating it.

The initial response seemed to be denial – denial that anything of this sort could happen in Germany, still less originate there. Hospitals were soon said to be running short of the necessary equipment and drugs. Information emerged only sporadically, and when it was supplied, it was patchy.

Worst of all was what seemed the knee-jerk decision to pin the blame on foreigners, specifically Spain. It was as though the German government, having restrained itself for months, as it tried to convince its sceptical taxpayers of the imperative to fund bailouts to Greece and Portugal, finally snapped. No sooner had the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, insisted that southern Europeans needed to work harder if they wanted to be rescued with German money that health officials in Hamburg said they had identified imported Spanish cucumbers as responsible for the E.coli.

In the past, Germany has been so protective of its diplomacy that it has erred, if at all, on the side of caution and co-operation, seeking allies for every move. The hasty and unfounded accusations against Spain not only poisoned relations with Madrid but also caused resentment across Europe, as countries including Russia banned imports of vegetables from the EU and farmers had no choice but to dump tons of what is now known to have been healthy produce.

Germany's federal structure, in which most responsibility for health is devolved to individual states, may be a factor in the country's ill-co-ordinated response. As may a change-over at the federal health department, following the departure of the minister to head the FDP, the junior partner in the governing coalition. Nor was the EU well equipped to compensate for the failings at German national level. EU officials could do little more than watch as the Germans and Spanish traded insults, even though the E.coli outbreak was claiming victims across Europe and growers not only in Spain faced ruin.

Already at sixes and sevens over euro bailouts and migrants and Arab uprisings, the EU notched up another failure. And Germany, which has seemed increasingly reluctant to play the key anchor role it fulfilled for so long, was most at fault. As the number of E.coli cases declines, it is already clear that this has been more than a fatal outbreak of food poisoning, and the repercussions will be felt for a very long time.