Richard North, 05/11/2012  

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Since the year 2000, more than double the number of tree diseases have entered the UK than the whole of the past century. That we learnt recently from Louise Gray of the Telegraph, who is taking a break from extolling the virtues of making ourselves bankrupt over climate change.

Separately, the BBC tells us that a nursery forced to destroy 50,000 ash trees after dieback fungal disease was found is considering taking legal action against the government for failing to block imports sooner.

These two issues are, of course related in that we are no longer masters of our own domain – plant health and the trade in plants and plant products is entirely an EU competence and governed exclusively by EU law. We are no longer able to define our controls and rely entirely on systems agreed in Brussels.

Currently, in respect of trade, there are two levels of control – one applying to intra-community trade and the other applying no non-EU imports. The legal base for both regimes relies on the much-amemded Council Directive 2000/29/EC "on protective measures against the introduction into the Community of organisms harmful to plants or plant products and against their spread within the Community".

The probem here, as far as the UK is concerned, is that the controls are baised in favour of (two-way) movement of goods, and the control systems are based on a Continental philosophy, whereby only limited control over plant diseases can be exercised.

This, then is a classic example of where the EU's "one size fits all" philosophy simply does not take account of the realities on the ground. The crucial issue here is that which we pointed out earlier – the UK is an island. We can, therefore, use the sea barrier to exclude diseases which, on the mainland, it is not reasonable to attempt.

Rather than using the complex EU model, which relies on a fragile system of registration, inspection and "passports", we need to reverse the basic assumptions underlying the system.

Currently, imports have to be permitted unless we can demonstrate that the product is infected – which we are not allowed to do with intra-community trade, if the paperwork is up to scratch. 

What we need is a system where any product from abroad – whether the EU or the rest of the world – should be deemed infected unless proved to the contrary and automatically excluded. This should apply to all but exceptional circumstances, where we are able to define specific measures which will guarantee freedom from infection.

Here, it is not the EU that we should be looking to for our control model, but to Australia. There, the DAFF website sets out the rationale. Australia, it says, "is free from some of the world's major agricultural and aquatic pests and diseases, and is a world leader in animal welfare. This 'clean and green' status provides us with a major trading advantage and access to overseas markets".

One can easily see how this would be rejected by the EU – because it would give us "a major trading advantage". The EU ethos has always been to share the misery, so that we have never been allowed under EU rules to capitalise on our island geography.

However, this beggar-my-neighbour policy is both niggardly and shortsighted. With 90 percent of Ash trees in Denmark infected, the Danish authorities were looking to the UK from which to obtain healthy stock. In other words, the presence of an offshore island, which can be kept as an infection-free reservoir, is an EU as well as a national asset.

The Government, we are told, is currently in talks with other member states on updating the EU Plant Health Regime, but tweaking round the edges is not enough. We need a complete rethink here. It may be the case that no man is an island, but the UK most certainly is, and it is about time that the EU recognised it.


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