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Christopher Booker's notebook

(Filed: 13/03/2005)

No help at all? That'll be 40,000 please

There has been a remarkable twist to the bizarre story of Per Lindstrand, the world-famous Swedish balloonist. His firm, based since 1978 in Oswestry, Shropshire, has lost millions of pounds in the past 18 months, due to the takeover of aviation safety regulation in the EU by the new European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa), and the ensuing bureaucratic chaos.

Until September 2003, as I have several times reported, Lindstrand Technologies was the world's leading manufacturer of aerostats, giant tethered balloons costing 500,000 each. But when the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had to hand over certification of all aircraft to Easa, it overnight became illegal, thanks to a quirk in British law, for Dr Lindstrand to sell his aerostats anywhere in the EU, including Britain. This gave a complete monopoly to his only competitor, the Franco-German firm Aerophile.

For 18 months, despite solemn promises by the CAA and British ministers to resolve this absurd anomaly - promises made both to me and to Owen Paterson, Dr Lindstrand's MP - he was still subjected to unending obfuscation by the CAA, which also charged him more than 40,000 in regulatory costs while it failed to solve the problem. He lost millions of pounds' worth of orders and was forced to lay off a fifth of his 90-strong workforce.

Then Ashley Mote, who was elected last June as a UKIP MEP and now sits as an independent, was approached by one of his constituents, Peter Smith, with a similar problem.

Mr Smith's Intheairnet, a Berkshire firm supplying electronic equipment to some of the world's most expensive private jets, faced disaster. Since the CAA handed over its certification powers to Easa, he could no longer get certification for his products without going through a ludicrously cumbersome system which involved getting separate approvals from each of his customers and disclosing all his technical secrets to firms which were his direct competitors.

Mr Smith gave Mr Mote details of eight other specialist firms likewise facing disaster. Mote had also read in this column of Lindstrand's problems, and therefore arranged a meeting in Cologne with Dr Norbert Lohl, Easa's head of certification. On March 4, having been presented with the horrifying story of how all these British firms were about to go out of business, Dr Lohl expressed surprise that such a problem had arisen.

He emphasised that it is now he, not "national authorities" such as the CAA, who is in charge of aviation certification in the EU. He promised that Lindstrand's aerostats would be given certification without delay and that he would quickly sort out the problems affecting the other firms. He emphasised that all certification issues should now be brought straight to him, because national authorities are only there to do Easa's bidding.

Last week this was confirmed to me by Dr Daniel Holtgen, Easa's head of communications, who several times stated "we are here to provide solutions". Dr Lohl separately confirmed to Mr Mote that Easa Type Certification of Lindstrand's aerostats valid in all EU member states had been "issued on 4 March 2005".

Obviously for Dr Lindstrand it is the best possible news that his 18-month nightmare has come to such a miraculous end. But this weird episode leaves a trail of chilling question marks. The CAA, which until September 2003 was one of the most respected aviation safety regulators in the world, has been downgraded to the status of a mere branch office.

Why was it allowed to charge Lindstrand more than 40,000 to achieve nothing, when its powers had all been handed over to the new EU agency?

Why did neither the CAA nor British ministers explain this, dishonestly pretending they had the power to resolve a crisis which only the hand-over of their powers to the EU had created in the first place?

Why do Dr Lohl and Dr Holtgen now insist that the British firms should have come to them long ago about these problems, when until January this year the Easa website asked people not to contact them because they were not yet ready for business?

It is hard not to suspect that something of a public relations operation is now being mounted to convey that, in the name of EU integration, Easa is an efficient, user-friendly organisation only "here to provide solutions".

We must recall that we now rely on Easa to ensure that the EU's aircraft do not fall out of the sky: yet consider what a price has already been paid by countless aviation firms for the chaotic fashion in which it has been set up.

Euro-army should fill us with fear

Some kind of immortality might be accorded to a comment last week by Austria's finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, that a meeting of EU finance ministers had made considerable progress, but largely "in the wrong direction". Their purpose was to discuss a proposal that France and Germany should be allowed to drive a double-decker bus through the rules of the Growth and Stability Pact, on which the credibility of the euro depends.

As the running of the eurozone sinks into chaos, with its largest economy - Germany - mired in recession, the EU now seems to be making the wrong kind of progress in all directions. A report by the pan-European business organisation Eurochambres predicts that, on current projections, the EU economy will only catch up with the present performance of the American economy by 2056 - and even that is dependent on the improbable condition that the EU's productivity grows at an annual rate 0.5 per cent faster than that of the United States.

Meanwhile Nick Witney, the former senior Ministry of Defence official who now heads the new European Defence Agency, last week wrote to The Telegraph to deny my report that he is playing a key role in building up an "EU defence identity" separate from both Nato and the USA. Mr Witney must hope that we don't read his evidence to a House of Lords committee last year in which he agreed that his agency's purpose is to promote the European Security and Defence Policy, whose objective is a "European defence identity".

It was disingenuous of him to claim in his letter that he is only concerned with co-ordinating defence procurement. Nowadays, as he well knows, it is precisely the nature of the armed forces' electronics and weapons systems that dictates who they can fight alongside. At the centre of EU defence planning is the Future Rapid Effects System (Fres) which will create a family of vehicles and weapons systems co-ordinated through the EU's Galileo satellite programme. If the British Army is reorganised around Fres, as Mr Witney's former ministry wants, it will be equipped to fight alongside other EU forces, but not alongside the Americans.

The real danger Britain now faces, through our breakneck integration with the EU's defence and procurement policy, is that our Armed Forces may soon be as effective as the Growth and Stability Pact. And that will be no joke at all.

Irrelevant mother of parliaments

The House of Commons again provided a startling picture last week of what is meant in practice by "scrutiny". This is the process whereby MPs are supposed to examine EU legislation in advance, so that ministers can then go off to discuss it in Brussels with the full authority of Parliament.

The handful of MPs attending "European Standing Committee A" on Tuesday, to discuss various crucial new laws governing the fishing industry, had been presented only hours before with 900 pages of documents, on which they were graciously permitted to question our fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw before voting.

Mr Bradshaw seemed to have some difficulty in answering the questions put to him. But his Labour colleagues remained silent, until they could dutifully give this mountain of unread paper their approval. Few probably even realised that the regulations under discussion were approved in Brussels last December and have already been law for three months. Whatever Parliament thought about them was thus wholly irrelevant.