BRUSSELS NOTEBOOK: What Lessons Can Be Learned from FMD?

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GREAT Britain apart, there is a sense that, for the European Union, the worst of the Foot-and-Mouth crisis is over.

Now, the Commission and Member States want to look back and decide what lessons can be learned.

In a gesture with which most farmers will agree, the new EU Belgian presidency, which took over on July 1, has agreed to consider what measures could be introduced to boost protection against disease being brought to the EU as a result of the movement of meat or livestock.

To this end, it is planning a major scientific conference in Brussels in the autumn, at which an attempt will be made to assess the level of risk the EU faces.

It is not, of course, only Foot-and-Mouth Disease that poses a risk. Ten years of a relaxation of border controls has left the EU open to a wide range of diseases, with Swine Fever and Foot-and-Mouth the recent headline grabbers that have had a devastating impact.

However, tougher controls are not easy to enforce, since the Commission is hemmed in on one side by the World Trade Organisation rules and, on the other, by the need to open markets to central and eastern Europe, as part of the process of bringing in new Member States.

However, there can be no getting away from the reality that in countries close to the EU economically dangerous diseases are endemic.

Another reality is that the EU imports meat from countries where diseases like Foot-and-Mouth are common, and it depends on control systems in these countries to ensure no infected meat is imported.

This contrasts with countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada which adopt a tougher line.

They are ready to fight in the WTO on the battle ground of so-called phyto-sanitary protection for their industry being more important than sticking to the letter of the law on international trading rules.

It is encouraging that the Belgian presidency is prepared to look at the disease threat, since, in the United Kingdom, Foot-and-Mouth seems set to be used as a reason to criticise the farming industry.

There is a sense that someone has to be blamed for what happened, and for a Government that sees public opinion as vital ``intensive'' farming is a convenient and easy target. …