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EU's chicken-and-egg conundrum

By Raf Casert

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2012 2:10 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 6, 2012, farmer Eric Pierart, left, and his son Ludovic, pose for a photograph alongside thousands of hens caged in his renovated barn in Fleurus, Belgium. A dozen years after the European Union set Jan. 1, 2012 as the date to eliminate the most cramped cages to improve the living standards of egg laying hens, half of the 27 European Union nations have failed to fully comply. Pierart says he spent some euro 1.5 million ($1.9 million) on new equipment for 100,000 chickens to comply with EU legislation.

Yves Logghe, Associated Press

FLEURUS, Belgium — When Eric Pierart takes in the chaotic wiggling of thousands of hens caged in his renovated barn, he's reminded of how tough it is for Europe to unite on anything.

And how much time it takes.

A dozen years after the European Union set Jan. 1, 2012 as the date to eliminate the most cramped cages to improve the living standards of egg laying hens, half of the 27 European Union nations have failed to fully comply — a flop seen as a metaphor for Europe's current state of disarray.

"In all, they have been talking about it for 30 years," complained the ruddy-cheeked Pierart, who adhered to the new rules.

"Now, it shows that common ideas for everyone are still hard to come by."

Such is the way of the EU, where legislation seeps through layers of political and institutional granite in 27 nations at barely a trickle. And it affects a lot more than just the happiness of chickens.

Take the global economy.

For nearly two years, the world has been crying out for immediate and drastic measures to combat a debt crisis that has threatened to trigger a worldwide depression.

For nearly two years, the world has come away frustrated with explanations that Europe is not a legislative superhighway.

Now the fate of the lowly laying hen is again underscoring how slow a process it is to get everyone in the quilt of nations that is the European Union to unite on a common cause.

Many chicken farmers who made the heavy investment on time are now at a competitive disadvantage from laggards who didn't. Pierart says he spent some €1.5 million ($1.9 million) on new equipment for 100,000 chickens.

In this chicken-and-egg situation, it's hard to pinpoint who's ultimately to blame.

Some fault the glacial pace of continentwide legislation, as well as the EU's poor checks, controls and enforcement.

Others point the finger at the perceived bad faith of some EU nations, seen as turning a laudable ideal into a logistical mess.

"If it is already so difficult for this, then how tough is it for 27 nations on much bigger issues?" Pierart asked.

It's all deepened well-worn stereotypes that have long dogged the European Union — about how the less affluent south and east skirt the rules, about how upright nations like Germany end up paying for it all, and about the bloated EU institutions that seem unable to do anything about it.

Those institutions, often identified simply as "Brussels", can be a soft target. Fix something, and they're accused of meddling. When things goes wrong, they're accused of inaction or incompetence.

"It's an absolute joke," said Ian Plant, the owner of Plants Eggs in England's Lincolnshire, who, like Pierart, made the switch on time.

"This is such a serious situation that someone at the end of the day has to get to grips with it."

Even EU Consumer Policy Commissioner Dalli has said the hen imbroglio is undermining the EU's credibility.

His office said that 14 member states are still not complying with the rules, including France, Italy, Poland and Spain.

That has particularly irked Britain, which has deep animal rights traditions and often seizes on any perceived slight from the European Union.

"It is unacceptable that after the ban on battery cages comes into effect around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions," said British Agriculture Minister Jim Paice.

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