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The new protectionism

Posted by Richard Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Wait long enough and they will eventually catch up with us. That could well be the new motto of this Blog, bearing in mind that in early August last year, we wrote a story on how EU food safety rules were pole-axing Kenyan growers.

So complex and expensive to implement were these rules that hundreds of businesses were giving up the ghost. Food safety had become the new protectionalism, replacing the tariff barriers of old.

We revisited the issue again in August, with a tale about how health and safety rules were hampering small Chinese IT manufacturers, and came back to the Kenyan problem in December when we remarked that, "with its obsession for bureaucracy," the EU was gradually killing off local farmers in Kenya, just as its own CAP has been progressively wiping out small farmers in EU member states - all in the name of "health 'n' safety".

Now, wonder of wonders, the hyper-active Mr Mandelson has been up in front of the Commons international development committee, talking about this very subject.

According to a BBC report, he told the committee members that EU food hygiene laws "could be (notice the "could be") seen as a bid to protect European markets against competition," and argued it was important that "proper protection" of EU citizens did not become protection against developing countries' products.

He acknowledged that there were concerns about this "sensitive" issue that had to be taken seriously. But he also revealed quite how sensitive it was, admitting that "a ton of bricks" had been dropped on him last time he raised the issue with the "colleagues".

Nevertheless, he also admitted that "strong vested interests" were insisting that protection of "EU citizens" must be paramount "even down to the possible threat of one in a billion", and that these standards were perhaps having "an unforeseen side effects to the detriment of developing country products".

However, according to Mandelson, the "perhaps" was clearly hypothetical. Despite the wails of Kenyan farmers, and even Chinese and Indian farmers, from whom, Mandelson conceded, the EU had received "a lot of complaints" - with these developing countries claiming that the measures were acting as non-tariff barriers to trade, denying them entry to the EU markets - there was no problem.

According to the trade commissioner, when it came to the line between excessive safety measures and protection of "EU citizens", he had "no evidence" that line had been crossed. This man is obviously going to go far in the European Union.