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The EU is too busy creating disasters to help relieve them

Posted by Richard Sunday, September 04, 2005

Following on from our observations on the somewhat mute response from the EU on the Katrina hurricane disaster, and from Tony Blair representing the EU presidency, Booker offers a trenchant piece in his column today. "As the appalling scale of the tragedy unfolding in the southern United States became apparent", he writes, "one dog remained conspicuously quiet in the night."

By Wednesday, messages of sympathy were flooding in from all over the world, from the Queen, the Pope, President Putin and heaven knows who. But from the EU in general, and from Tony Blair in particular, as its current president, there was nothing - until Friday, when the Downing Street website reported, between mentions of Baghdad and Beslan, that Mr Blair had sent a letter to President Bush.

There was no mention of sympathy but only an offer of EU "assistance". Curiously, however, this was replaced later in the day by a brief statement saying that Mr Blair had written a letter to Mr Bush expressing Britain's sympathy, but no longer referring to the offer of help from the EU.

Inevitably there has been an ironic contrast between the US's seeming inability to cope with such a catastrophe on its own doorstep and the efficiency of its remarkable response last January to the South-east Asian tsunami. While spokesmen for the EU (and the UN) poured out their sentimental and ineffectual verbiage, the US, Australian and Indian navies were rapidly on the spot, deploying the resources which saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Two weeks after that disaster, the European Commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, boasted that the EU had given €2 billion in aid (about £1.4 billion - three quarters of it raised in private donations to charities). But the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, sternly responded that his country did not want aid from the EU. It wanted a repeal of the crippling tariff imposed by Brussels on Thai shrimp imports, which had cost his country, the world's largest prawn exporter, £3 billion since 1997, twice as much as the aid the EU was now offering.

Those tariffs had been imposed to protect the French and other EU fishing industries, which hoover up vast quantities of prawns off the coast of Africa, under "Third World fishing agreements" for which EU taxpayers have shelled out well over £1 billion.

Embarrassed by this revelation, Peter Mandelson, as the EU's trade commissioner, promised at the time to consider trade concessions to the Thais worth "tens of millions of euros". He repeated his promise again on a visit to Thailand in April. So far nothing has happened.

Now, just as Mr Mandelson is yet again plunged into embarrassment by the "bra wars" fiasco, threatening tens of thousands of European jobs to protect the textile industries of France and southern Europe from Chinese competition, he is being urged to impose a further penal tariff on imports of Thai maize, which French and Hungarian growers protest are undercutting them by 50 per cent. Last week the head of the biggest food company in Thailand, the world's fourth largest maize exporter, flew to Paris to plead that this proposed "EU anti-dumping" measure threatened thousands of Thai jobs.

So while the EU prepared to inflict further catastrophic damage on the economies of the Third World (with the aid of that supposed "free-trader" Mr Mandelson), it was too busy, it seems, to send any formal expression of sympathy to the country it loves to hate, America. That antipathy was also exemplified last week by President Chirac's pledge of vast sums of EU money to enable French and German firms to devise an internet search engine to rival Google, and protect Europe against this expression of "Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism".

No doubt Mr Blair's offer of EU "assistance" over the Katrina disaster will be appreciated. President Bush might note, however, that Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's "commissioner for external relations", was looking forward last January to the EU having its 5,000 strong "crisis management force" ready by 2007. For the people of New Orleans and Biloxi, it may come a little late.
And, while the EU is belatedly offering "assistance" now, there has been no formal statement of sympathy from the EU Commission and, given the largesse the EU has dispensed elsewhere, it would not have the commission to have donated a token €1 million to the American Red Cross. However, we are sure that our readers are more that happy to venture where the commission fears to tread.

Photo courtesy of American Red Cross.

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