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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?