Monday, August 06, 2007

Dousing the flames of integration

While the UK has suffered a miserable summer, with torrential rain, floods and unseasonable chills, southern Europe has had an ever worse time with scorching heat and a rash of uncontrollable forest fires.

Latest has been the conflagration in El Tanque on the Canary island of Tenerife, Spain, where some 11,000 people had to be evacuated while, in Gran Canaria island, a four-day-old fire burnt out nearly 25,000 acres of woodland. There, some 5,200 people, including some tourists, had to be evacuated. In Tenerife, it was 6,000 people on the move, when 10,000 acres wnet up in flames.

Elsewhere, in Slovenian and Macedonian, fires have been ravaging the landscape, with army helicopters drafted in from Croatia, Turkey, Slovenia and Germany to help beat the flames.

Greece has also been particularly badly hit, the most recent fires affecting the southern Greek town of Aegio 100 miles west of Athens on Friday, with the worst fires near the northern borders with Albania and Macedonia, while Italy has had its fair share of fires as well.

Never one to miss an opportunity to exploit others' misfortunes, the European Union has been right there, seeking to capitalise on yet another "beneficial crisis" by offering to set up a pan-European fire-fighting service.

Such moves are often applauded by the European media but not, it seems this time. Deutsche Welle, for instance, greets this latest piece of opportunism with a very downbeat report, headlining it: "EU Considers Smothering Fires in Paperwork".

Furthermore, it notes that national fire departments are opposing the plan, noting that the problem in Greece, in particular, is lack of coordination. There is only one fire department control station in Athens in charge of the entire coordination, with a hugely cumbersome system for drafting in extra resources.

In order to "ease organisation," says Deutsche Welle - with more than a hint of sarcasm - "officials in Brussels have come up with a way to put the fires out quickly by adding paper to them."

Leading the way is EU Environment Commissar Stavros Dimas who burbles that, "Extinguishing all the fires can only be accomplished with the help of European partners … It is time to improve the mechanism, so we can be more efficient in the future."

Dimas has revived the idea from his former French colleague Michel Barnier, who suggested an EU fire department for forest fires in 2006, when the south of France was badly hit. The idea is that all member states should contribute to a central fund to support the EU fire-fighting force.

Predictably, this is supported by Sarkozy and the Greek prime minister Kostas Karamanlis, but other member states see the idea as an attempt to put an unnecessary monetary burden on the whole community. Many do not see the point of keeping an intervention force on stand-by all year.

And, if the arrangements for drawing down resources in Greece are cumbersome, the fear if that deploying a Euro-fire department would be just as awkward.

It seems that member states are getting a little wise to the ways of the EU but, in any event, they are not impressed by this latest gimmick – not least because they are quite able to arrange mutual aid without the intervention of Brussels. Somehow, this is not the response that the "colleagues" might have expected, with the beneficent "mother Europe" rushing to the aid of her children, but they will, of course, keep trying.

However, such lack of enthusiasm is rather dousing the flames of integration.

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