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Saturday, October 16, 2004


Bangers for Europe

I am strongly pro-European but have always felt frustrated by the failure of politicians to connect the European case to people's everyday concerns.

The biggest advantage of the European Union (the end to war within Europe) has little or no traction with those not old enough to remember the Second World War. Much of the EU's day-to-day work on harmonisation directives, while bringing widespread economic benefits, seems too technical or boring for most people. And the cause isn't helped by avid pro-Europeans who think the case for Europe is made by banging on about the technical benefits of clause VII, sub-section (iv), paragraph (iii) of the draft EU constitution.

So it's good to see a campaign (also here) being launched by local butchers in my home county of Lincolnshire, to persuade the EU to give 'protected geographical indication status' to the Lincolnshire Sausage. The campaigners have managed to enlist the celebrity cook Clarissa Dickson-Wright to support their cause.

The goal is to persuade the EU to give the Lincolnshire Sausage statutory protection, under regulations that protect food names on a geographical basis. If the campaigners are successful, only sausages made in Lincolnshire to a traditional recipe may be sold as 'Lincolnshire Sausages'. Imitations made outside the county could no longer be passed off as the real thing.

The philosophy behind such regulation is based on the French concept of 'terroir', the idea that foodstuffs from a particular region embody a unique local character derived from a specific combination of soil, climate and production methods. While the relevant EU regulations go back only to 1993, similar laws have existed in other EU countries (such as France, with its 'Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée' system for wine and cheese) for much longer.

The British have been slow on the uptake. Only the name of Stilton cheese enjoyed statutory protection until recently, but now more than 30 British products (including Newcastle Brown Ale, Whitstable oysters and Cornish clotted cream) are protected, and a campaign similar to Lincolnshire's is being mounted to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies.

The Melton Mowbray campaigners face opposition from Labour peer Lord Haskins and his Northern Foods company. Critics see such regional designations as a crude form of protectionism, and the system has also been attacked by the Americans in the WTO, who see it as barrier to the interests of their giant food multinationals. But when large food companies complain that geographical protection "fragments the market", this is just a euphemism for the threat it poses to their monopoly power and their attempts to homogenise our food culture.

Contrary to what critics claim, no one is making absurd demands for protection, such as that Brussels sprouts should be produced only in Brussels. But protected status, where legitimately applied, brings a range of benefits that go beyond the interests of producers.

Liberals should welcome this system because it ensures diversity and choice for the consumer, and provides an assurance of authenticity. It also helps traditional local producers, who lack the marketing budgets of their multinational rivals, to promote and win recognition for their products. It raises standards of food production by providing an incentive for farmers to move from quantity into quality (important when the EU needs to tackle a glut of produce). It helps revive regional economies and restore local pride, and provides a basis for encouraging food-based tourism.

But the real political benefit is that this is one way of demonstrating the value of the European Union to the ordinary citizen, who might otherwise perceive the EU as a remote bureaucracy. The more the EU becomes a forum where local people can campaign for their interests, the more the EU will have come of age.

The lesson for pro-Europeans? Less constitution, more sausage.

PS: If you live in the UK and want to order the real thing from Lincolnshire, try here.

They say that "life imitates art" and this whole debate sounds alarmingly like Jim Hacker's "emulsified high fat offal tube" [http://www.yes-minister.com/ymseas4.htm] for the full story in which the bumbling MP becomes Prime Minister on the back of his attack against the EU's plan to rename the great British sausage. And that was 20 years ago!
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