Sunday, October 31, 2004

Booker

There are many people, not least those in the Commission, who are ever-ready to dismiss Booker’s stories as "myths" and, for a long time, his column featured prominently on the section of the European Commission’s UK website devoted to Euro-myths.

As an example of the commission’s attention to detail, however, it is worth looking at one of their attempts to debunk such a "myth", this one being a claim by Booker in his column of 20 December 1998 that, under EC directive 92/58, it would be a criminal offence to display any sign reading 'Fire Exit', unless the design also carries a 'Europictogram' of a running man.

The response by the commission, under the heading, "fact", was:

The differences between the safety and health signs currently used in the workplace can lead to uncertainty and confusion. This may become more widespread as more people choose to work in other European countries. The use of standardised signs in the workplace will in general help reduce the hazards which may arise through linguistic and cultural differences. Firms were given 18 months to introduce the changes.
Even superficial reading shows that, in fact, the commission does not deny the story and, if you care to use the link provided to the directive cited, you will see that Booker’s claim was perfectly true. Nevertheless, still appears in the list of the commission’s Euro-myths.

In much the same category is a story we did on 28 September of 2003, just as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) took control of the airworthiness certification of all aircraft produced in the territories of EU member states.

EASA is one of the European Community’s 15 agencies and, for Europhiles, is one of the classic arguments for taking a "European perspective" to regulation. Instead of airworthiness standards for every member state, there was now to be a single set of regulations. Once an aircraft, built anywhere in the EU, was certified by EASA, it could be sold anywhere in the EU, without the need for additional certification.

As always with the EU, however, there was a distinction between theory and practice. Our story was about that distinction, which affected the world's largest manufacturer of tethered balloons, costing £500,000 a time. When EASA took over, the firm, owned by the celebrated Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand, was no longer be able to sell his product, giving his only rival, a Franco-German firm, Aerophile, a monopoly of the market.

The problem was, to say the very least, bizarre. Under a quirk of British law, Mr Lindstrand's baloons, called "aerostats" - which can lift 30 people 500 feet into the air like a cut-price version of the London Eye – had, prior to the arrival of EU law, been certified by the HSE as 'fairground rides', even though the same balloons when free-flying were certified as 'aircraft' by the Civil Aviation Authority. The same devices made by his Franco-German competitor, however, were certified under German law as 'aircraft'.

What changed with the arrival of EU law was that these "aerostats" had to be certified as aircraft, with an additional provision that any craft already certified before the law took effect acquired "grandfather rights" and could be sold anywhere in the EU.

Thus, the situation arose whereby the Aerophiles could be sold in the UK but Per Lindstrand’s machines, called HiFlyers, having not been certified as aircraft, had to undergo the full certification process before they could be sold, even in the UK where they were manufactured.

And, as the new system took over, no EU standards had been produced for "aerostats" which means that Lindstrand could not even begin the certification process, leaving his firm facing ruin.

What marked this story out then, way back in September 2003 when we reported it, was the ludicrously patronising reply from Nick de Souza in the Commission's London press office which showed no grasp whatever of the problem.

This left Lindstrand's MP Owen Paterson to make a last-minute appeal to Tom McNulty, then the relevant British minister. He was equally dismissive, stating that the EU certification Lindtsrand needed might be ready "early in 2004" and that handing over to the EU presented "no obstacle to the continued conduct of Mr Lindstrand’s business".

Thus the story rested until, last week, Owen Paterson received a impassioned letter from Mr Lindstrand, reporting that his company had still been unable to gain certification for his "aerostat" balloons and, worse still, while he was unable to sell his products, his rival, Aerophile, had managed to steal a march on him and sell its product as a tourist attraction in Bristol.

Managing the certification process on behalf of EASA has been the British certification authority, the CAA, and – after endless delays in producing a certification standard, the problem has become the endless obstacles put in the way of Mr Lindstrand’s machines, the latest being the certification of the massive winch used to tether the balloons, made to the highest safety specifications by a Huddersfield firm.

Under EU rules, this can be certified as safe by an ‘expert body’, and Mr Lindstrand’s winch is accordingly licensed by the HSE under fairground safety rules. But the CAA is now refusing to recognise the HSE as an ‘expert body’. Instead, the CAA seems to be insisting on carrying out its own technical safety studies from scratch, a task for which it is unqualified, as it has no experience in this field.

Europhiles might now feel that they can take comfort in this situation as it seems no longer an EU problem but an old fashioned "red-tape" story, caused by over-zealous British officials. But that is only half the story. In by-gone days, confronted with such a problem, Mr Lindstrand could have gone to his MP – as indeed he has - and his MP would have tackled the relevant minister.

But now, the CAA is longer responsible to the minister – it is subordinate to EASA, which seems accountable to no one but itself. The system of democratic accountability has broken down.

And should Mr Lindstrand wish to contact EASA directly, he will be wasting his time. Currently on the EASA website is posted this message:

As all our ressources (sic) are presently working on on-going certification programmes, the Certification Team is currently unable to respond to all the information requests received on the general e-mail address linked to certification issues. It is hoped that this situation will soon be rectified and this general e-mail address for certification related information requests will be operational again on the web as soon as possible. Please check our web site regulary (sic) for further information.
For the full story of Mr Lindstand’s troubles, and Booker's other stories (which will be the subject of separate posts) read the Booker column, linked here.

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