International Papers

Europe Under Siege

The British press reports the human toll of foot-and-mouth disease. The London Times reported that British police are confiscating the shotguns of farmers driven to the brink of suicide by the mass destruction of their livestock, while the Independent described the scene at the site of France’s first confirmed case, where the farmer whose sheep imports allegedly conveyed the disease was barricaded in his home “fearful of reprisals.” The Guardian said a Welsh farmer, depressed by the movement restrictions that “trapped” him in his farmhouse, hanged himself Wednesday. With much of the countryside off-limits and further restrictions expected soon, rural tourism is suffering. According to the Guardian, the British Tourist Authority estimates the industry is losing up to $215 million per week. A Times op-ed urged the government to help: “We compensated owners of handguns when we banned them, for God’s sake: why not help owners of hiking or riverside businesses for a period when hiking and canoeing are outlawed?”

Not only has foot-and-mouth disease forced the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland, it has also demolished the façade of polite relations between Britain and its European neighbors. The Irish Times condemned an Irish minister’s characterization of Britain as “the leper of Europe” as “crude and unhelpful” but admitted it “reflected the anger felt by some Irish farmers.” In Britain, agriculture accounts for just 1 percent of GNP, compared with 10 percent in the Irish Republic, but according to the Irish Times, that “does not … excuse the ineffective approach that has been adopted towards disease protection.” Although there are some restrictions on access to the British countryside, the paper felt the British government has not gone far enough, and it suggested Tony Blair’s wish to call a general election for early May was to blame. An op-ed in the Times of London counseled Blair to ignore demands to postpone the expected May 3 vote:

This election has been long enough in the coming, everyone knows who is going to win, nobody is particularly interested in it, and voters want it out of the way fast. … Never mind the animals—the nation is screaming to be put out of its misery.

As of Thursday morning, 230 cases of foot-and-mouth disease had been confirmed in Britain (including some in Northern Ireland), and there was at least one verified outbreak in France. Although there is a vaccine, the European Union has prohibited its use since 1991, partly so that EU countries can export meat that is both vaccine- and disease-free. (See this “Explainer” for an FAQ on foot-and-mouth disease.) Libération of Paris asked if the remedies—the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals, many of which are not infected—might be worse than the problem itself. It concluded that it is very possible that the current situation “could end in a dispute where some countries (the Europeans) accuse others (most of all the Americans) of having imposed unjustifiable measures because of ‘exaggerated reactions.’ Measures that one can require of oneself if they are motivated by a legitimate health concerns rather than by protectionism.” Spain’s El País expressed similar concern at the United States banning all EU meat, even though only two countries have been afflicted thus far:

Right now there is a general trend toward self-protection that runs the risk of degenerating into arbitrary protectionism. … Steps like those taken by the United States reflect a widespread “every man for himself” attitude that is disproportionate and of limited effectiveness.

El Mundo contrasted the country’s traditional nonchalance about the threat to its livestock from nearby Morocco, where the disease is endemic, with the “collective paranoia” in the European Union: “It’s clear that since we joined the EU we also gradually adopted the common fantasies and changed our old priorities.”

Sketching an attitude: Readers interested in political reporting with wit, verve, and irreverence should check out Britain’s sketch writers. Regular practitioners of the art include the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart, the TimesMatthew Parris, the Independent’s Simon Carr, and the Daily Telegraph’s Frank Johnson. (Paul Wells of Canada’s National Post also merits mention.) Although the British sketch writers devote most of their time to covering the House of Commons, they occasionally stray to the House of Lords, as several did Monday to cover the debate on a hunting bill. Parris observed: “Then Lord McNally … behaved badly, claiming to quote a remark that peers’ favourite subjects were ‘badgers and buggers.’ That was not the remark I recall. The remark was that the upper chamber’s relative lack of interest in badgers … arises from the fact that there are no badgers in the Lords.” Hoggart’s take:

[A]s Lord McNally said, the Lords have always been terrifically excited by “badgers and buggery.” He meant “badgers” to stand for animals in general, so he could have offered “stags and sodomy,” or “foxes and fellatio.” A treat for another day, perhaps.