Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
February 6, 2001

Europe Is One &emdash; Until Disaster Strikes


LONDON &emdash; There are two versions of what is happening in Europe. One asserts that things couldn't be going better for the European Union. The Germans are in the driver's seat, confidently leading everyone else (including the reluctant French) toward a larger, more integrated community. The German foreign minister is bursting with ambitious projects for a European presidency and a European constitution. Productivity is up, unemployment down. Wim Duisenberg, president of the European Central Bank, can hardly contain his satisfaction at the prospect of a recession in the United States and the resurgence of the euro. The hour of Europe has struck. We are the masters now!

Seen through a darker glass, however, the Continent is awash in scandal. Well-attested charges of influence-peddling, graft, money laundering and illegal party funding have brought down senior ministers and retired statesmen in Britain, Germany and France. The Italian and Belgian courts are still poring over the lurid political crimes of decades past. The political class in West Europe stands lower in public esteem than at any point in recent memory. And then there is the crisis in public health.

Today's European medical scandals take two forms. The first is government irresponsibility. The worst case involved H.I.V.-tainted blood in French hospital transfusions in the mid-1980's: 4,000 mostly hemophiliac patients were given the blood, and hundreds died. A blood-screening test was available from an American company, but the French health ministry had banned it &emdash; preferring to wait, the families of the victims charged, for a competing French product to come on the market. In a trial concluded last year, the ministers concerned were held blameless even though the facts about the government's response were not in dispute. One of those tried, Laurent Fabius, is now the French finance minister.

The other kind of scandal involves administrative incompetence and private greed. Across the Continent there is a steadily rising panic about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Cattle appear to get mad cow because they were fed recycled bits of dead sheep and other animals. Humans who eat infected cattle risk contracting a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; so far 92 people have died &emdash; 88 of them in Britain, where the disease was first diagnosed and where 180,000 cases of mad cow have been found in cattle to date.

Faced with an incipient epidemic, the British government finally came clean two years ago, had all older cattle killed and instituted universal testing of livestock. In other affected countries, the initial reaction was the same as in Britain: It isn't happening, and if it is, don't acknowledge it. Public ignorance was preferable to the only expedient response, which was to slaughter all the infected herds, test the remaining cattle and publicize the known risks. That remedy is hugely expensive and a disaster for the farmers.

French and other European governments confined themselves to banning the import of British livestock and cattle feed, politically popular measures that did little to halt the spread of the disease. Then came the news that mad cow had spread to continental Europe and that four more individuals had died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Meat consumption collapsed, and prices with it. Farmers were angry and desperate.

Finally, the Europeans began to act. The Germans, who had insouciantly denied that the problem even concerned them, admitted the presence of mad cows on their soil and last week announced a plan to slaughter 400,000 cattle. And on Dec. 4, the European Union banned the use of animal products in cattle feed and ordered the removal of all cattle over the age of 30 months unless they were tested and proved to be disease-free. Because testing capacity is limited, more than two million cattle are likely to be slaughtered.

The mad cow scandal ought to be a tremendous opportunity for Brussels to flex its muscles. After all, the one thing an oversize bureaucracy should be good at is protecting public health. National governments are in thrall to electorates, pressure groups and self-interest, but the European Commission answers to no one and can thus do the right thing without impediment.

Unfortunately, reality is otherwise. The only way European governments will accede to the recent commission directives is if the European Union takes the blame &emdash; and foots the bill (the belated German agreement to destroy suspect herds is contingent on Brussels footing half the $300 million cost). But this means countries must increase their own contributions to the union's budget, which they are extremely reluctant to do.

Instead, European governments proceed incrementally, stonewalling and blaming foreign governments for their domestic predicaments. France still bans British beef. The Finnish representatives in Brussels agreed only with great reluctance to the latest European Union directives. Their animals, they insisted (as the French and Germans had), were unaffected.

The outcome is thus the opposite of what might be expected. Brussels issues orders, which are then loudly protested in each individual country, and then the E.U. is condemned by press and public for being ineffective. The E.U. seems to be just an abstraction &emdash; except when it is blamed in the tabloids for allowing diseased meat and other pollution across unpoliced national borders. Meanwhile, hapless European consumers can turn only to their own governments. Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin and Gerhard Schröder may seem irresponsible, cynical and even incompetent, but at least they are familiar and local: you can always vent your fear and fury on them at the next election.

Peter Sutherland, a former European commissioner from Ireland, recently dismissed polls suggesting that Europeans are increasingly skeptical about European integration. These worries, he intimated, were an insignificant hangover from the benighted "petty nationalisms" of the past. That is one view of Europe today. If only it were true.

Tony Judt is director of the Remarque Institute at New York University.