E.Coli Disaster: Germany vs. Europe - Where are we going?

Loss!Loss! Image by Xtream_i via Flickr
Germany has repeatedly turned against Europe. Last year, after Angela Merkel dragged her feet for three months, the Greek debt problem that could have easily been resolved within Europe, exploded, rocking the Euro-zone and putting at risk recovery from the Great Recession, even in the United States. In the breach Germany created by its testy tardiness, the IMF wiggled itself in, vying with the European Central Bank for a prime role in the bailout of Greece - those were in the heydays of IMF Director Dominique Strauss Kahn, when he was still toying with the idea of displacing Sarkozy as President, and Greece provided him with a perfect opportunity to show his face in Europe.

Now, with the e.coli disaster that has claimed so far the lives of 31 European citizens (all Germans, one Swede) and caused painful sickness in thousands of others, including some foreigners who had recently traveled to Northern Germany, the Germans have done it again. We were treated to the spectacle of regional authorities in Hamburg talking to the media, pointing the finger first at Spanish cucumbers, and then at tomato and lettuce, all without any shred of solid evidence. They just "suspected" that might be the case and rushed to issue warnings. With the immediate result of causing a panic , with consumers turning away from all the incriminated vegetables, across Europe - even as far as Russia that banned exports of all European vegetables.

As a consequence, farmers and wholesalers have suffered millions of Euros of losses and started screaming for compensation. We were treated to the usual spectacles: piles of cucumbers to be destroyed, a meeting of EU Agriculture Ministers haggling over the details of what compensation should be paid for farmers for their losses. A sorry spectacle compounded by the weak proposals coming from the EU Agriculture Commissioner who talked to the press of finding some €130 million in EU coffers to cover about 30% of the losses (!) and the Spanish Agriculture Minister, livid with anger, obviously refusing.

How much farmers and wholesalers will eventually get once the haggling is over (and the fuss in the media has died down) is anybody's guess. One thing is certain, it is the European taxpayer who is going to pay as usual for the incredible inefficiency, laxness and unprofessionalism of its political class.

Because that is what is most striking in this whole deplorable story: the European political class's inability to come to grips with an emergency situation, even though Europe had given itself a specific European institution to deal with food safety. Created in January 2002, after the BSE "mad cow" disease emergency had rocked Europe for a decade, finding the continent unprepared, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), installed in splendid headquarters in Parma, Italy, was supposed to be running "at full capacity" by 2004/5. It took a little longer than that to get it going (no surprise there!), but it is supposed to be fully operative since at least 2008/9. It has even undergone an internal reorganization to make it more "effective" and the new structure should be in place by January 2012. Of course, internal reforms can be profoundly disruptive and this may go some way to explain EFSA's absence in this story. Still EFSA, with a staff of some 450 professionals and a whole series of scientific panels, is on-going and operative: there's no reason to assume that it shouldn't be able to play its role.

What is EFSA supposed to do? It's interesting to read its mandate - in a nutshell, it's supposed to position itself in the public mind "as the independent guardian of food safety in the EU with a strong scientific focus. It should be the first point of reference for expertise on food safety." (Highlighting added).

Did you hear them say anything during the e.coli crisis? Okay, we all know that in the European power play, European institutions like EFSA are politically tied and told to shut up. We also know that in the EU context, risk assessment is done separately from risk management. But the point here is that the panic was caused by local authorities (in Hamburg) issuing a false alarm. Surely, if risk assessment was the business of EFSA, why didn't it move? Why didn't the German authorities defer to the EFSA?

I don't know, I don't have the answers, and nobody is asking either the German Minister of Agriculture - and much less the local authorities in Hamburg -  or the EFSA why they didn't collaborate on this one. Or why the EU itself didn't move. Both EU Commissioners concerned - the one for Agriculture and the one for Health (and thus food safety) - seemed to be dumb-struck, and the EU head, Barroso, didn't fare any better.

Why is Brussels so silent? The best the EU Commissioner for Health could come up with was a weak defense for the Germans: "We have to understand that people in certain situations do have a responsibility to inform their citizens as soon as possible of any danger that could exist to them," John Dalli said in Brussels. As soon as possible? Yes, but do it responsibly! And that was precisely the role of EFSA: ensure responsibility and confidence, by reference to solid scientific evidence.

Two elements seem to have been at work here to cause this disastrous situation. One, the famous "precaution principle" Europeans are so enamoured with. Because of the precaution principle, Europeans reject American-promoted OGMs, chemical additives etc - and often, quite rightly so: until all the scientific evidence is in, the precaution principle dictates that one should reject such new-fangled ideas. But here we were dealing with sick people, suffering from bleeding diarrhea and exposed to a life-threatening bacteria. So the precaution principle undoubtedly inspired local authorities in Hamburg to issue warnings, rather than remain accused afterwards of having caused possibly unnecessary deaths. One of these guys had probably a bad memory of an unhappy vacation in Spain so the Spanish cucumbers were immediately accused. In the rush to issue warnings, they forgot to get EFSA's opinion. Or did they? We shall never know. But they were clearly speaking for themselves and never made any reference to any European institution.

And here we get to the second and more serious element: in an emergency such as this one, no one turned to the EFSA although it had been fully functioning for some years already.  And the German Minister of Agriculture, by allowing local authorities to speak ahead of itself, is particularly remiss in this. Because if local authorities may forget that Europe exists, surely the Minister of Agriculture of a big country like Germany does not and cannot.

Why was no reference, no attempt to defer to European institutions made?

Who knows. My guess is that a certain, home-made, throw-back form of chauvinism is at work in Europe. Because World War II memories have faded and fallen behind the horizon, people have begun to forget what it means to be European. All they see is their nose. All Europeans seem to be this way nowadays: only concerned for their own well-being and Europe be damned. This renewed sense of patriotism seems to be particularly strong in Germany, where more and more people appear to be besotted with the Greatness of Great Germany.

This is a real pity. Because after Greece and the e.coli disaster, the great loser in all this is Europe. And along with the European ideal, all of us European citizens, in the hands of incompetent politicians who have little common sense and no scientific knowledge - yet both are essential in our increasingly technological world. This e.coli crisis would never have happened if somebody hadn't started to grow soya bean sprouts in a technologically advanced greenhouse south of Hamburg, duplicating the moist tropical environment necessary for bean sprouts in Northern Germany. And to think that the incriminated farm is supposed to be "biological"!

In my view, the lessons from this story are clear: don't trust local authorities, or European institutions or bio agriculture! What a mess!

What do you think?

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