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In Europe, Borders Are Back

By William Drozdiak Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, March 15, 2001; Page A01

BRUSSELS, March 14 -- The 15 countries of the European Union today found their decades-old effort to dismantle borders stopped dead by a virus. At long-unguarded crossing points, guards were again checking cars and travelers, searching for anything that might carry the microbe that causes foot-and-mouth disease.

Continental Europeans had hoped that the disease that appeared on British farms three weeks ago had been quarantined on the British Isles. But on Tuesday, within hours of France's announcement that two cows grazing near some sheep imported from Britain had contracted the highly contagious disease, Belgium, Portugal and Spain shut their borders to French meat. They were quickly followed by Germany and non-EU members Norway and Switzerland.

With an estimated 300 million farm animals susceptible in the EU, France's partners weren't taking any risks. Nor were the United States and Canada, which banned meat imports Tuesday, and Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, which were among the countries following suit today.

Humans do not generally contract the disease, but it can quickly cripple cattle, pigs, sheep and deer. The virus is so infectious that it can be transported by the wind or the shoes of tourists.

So Baerbel Hoehn, a senior agriculture minister from the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, went on national television to urge: "If journeys to France can be put off, then they should be avoided," she said. Travelers to France might bring back the disease, she said.

British sports fans arriving in Munich for an important soccer match were forced to surrender all meat and cheese sandwiches. Bavaria's farmers' association warned Munich supporters "to keep their distance" from the British -- not for fear of sparking a fight but because they might pick up the virus.

German border police, who abandoned crossings years ago when all frontiers were opened with France, returned to their posts and ordered back trucks hauling fresh beef, lamb and veal. Even dairy products, including chocolate bars, were confiscated.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for food safety, said that extreme measures were justified. Foot-and-mouth disease has become a serious global threat, it said, because of the ease with which viral infections can spread in an age of mass travel and enormous trade in farm products.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the United States would go beyond the trade ban and take other steps, such as disinfecting travelers from Europe arriving at U.S. ports of entry. The disease has not appeared in the United States since 1929.

Justified or not, the continent's growing hysteria over animal-borne diseases -- first the mad cow variety and now the foot-and-mouth version -- appears to be inflicting a blow to Europe's proudest political project: the drive to break down all internal barriers to the passage of people, capital and money and to unite Europe with common policies on such things as agriculture.

The EU spends about $50 billion a year, or half its budget, on agricultural programs. Its controversial farm policy lavishes huge subsidies on farmers who are encouraged to grow surpluses of meat, butter and grain, which are then further subsidized as exports to other countries. Third World governments often complain that the cheap EU farm exports undercut their own farmers.

Agriculture Minister Margareta Winberg of Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said she believes the outbreaks will persuade governments to push for urgent reforms in Europe's farming sector to restore consumer confidence.

"It can become a national catastrophe for any country," she said, expressing sympathy for the plight of her British and French colleagues. "Many people believe the industrialization of agricultural production has gone too far and is responsible for the problems we are now experiencing."

The foot-and-mouth epidemic will bring major economic hardships for Britain and its European partners. Besides the trade bans -- which will affect as much as $500 million worth of meat products sold to North America alone -- Europe must undertake the costly job of disposing of infected animals and controlling the disease.

Britain, where more than 200 cases have been confirmed, has already slaughtered 120,000 animals and plans to kill another 50,000. Today farmers called for postponement of an election that political analysts expect Prime Minister Tony Blair to call for May 3. The reason is that with movement of people severely restricted in rural Britain, it might not be possible to stage a campaign and vote.

French Agriculture Minister Bernard Glavany said his country only realized this week that it was vulnerable after discovering that 20,000 British sheep were imported last month and scattered among 80 farms around the country. The British animals have been destroyed, along with 30,000 French sheep brought into contact with them.

Public disillusionment over animal-disease emergencies has calls for creation of a European Food Safety Agency. But that proposal has done little to staunch a sense of impending doom amongEurope's farmers, who fear a crisis in consumer confidence will drive down demand for beef and pork by as much as 60 to 80 percent in places.

Near the village of La Baroche-Gondouin in northwestern France, where the two cows contracted foot-and-mouth disease, huge plumes of smoke rose into the sky today above a landscape dotted with stone houses and barns. One hundred and fourteen cows from the herd where the disease was detected were being incinerated after being slaughtered.

Police checkpoints were set up for miles around the infected farm; authorities made drivers run the wheels of their cars through disinfectant to prevent tires from transmitting the disease. Visitors were barred from entering the village, and many farmers asked visitors to dip the soles of their shoes in disinfectant.

"It's really catastrophic," Louis Loroux, whose farm is about a mile from the afflicted one, told the Associated Press. "If it happens here, we're going to lose everything. All of our animals will be killed."

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Swissrose (, March 15, 2001


This is going to kill the European tourist season this summer and its going to kill the airlines. Its worthwhile to short all airline companies that service Europe. That's an easy stock tip to figure out by yourself.

-- Guy Daley (, March 15, 2001.

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