As I was lucky not to be stranded in a foreign land (other than the one I am already living in) when volcanic ash disrupted air traffic, I have had the luxury of reading the criticism over the no fly zone with dispassion. I have full sympathy for every would be refugee who thought “if a foreign government can send in flights why can’t mine!” But I was equally struck by the irony that British people, who often hold other European governments in contempt appeared to trust the very entities about which they know so little and criticize so much. This was not about border controls or monetary policy but life itself. For some reason these comments brought back my memories of the day the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded in 1986. I was living in France and I confronted for the first time the issue of trusting a government in a foreign land over a potentially life threatening issue.
The Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union as it was at the time, was the worst nuclear accident that had ever occurred and it was very, very frightening. Glued to the news that evening I remember thinking that I had never seen images like this in Europe before. Violence I had seen, but not panic. These were not wide avenues with young rioters and police squaring off but fruit and vegetable markets like the one on Place Maubert down the street from my apartment. The reporters voices announced the countries, “this was the scene in Sweden.. this is Ireland.. this is Spain… Germany..” but the scenes were nearly identical. Panicky sellers packed up the food from their stalls while mothers grabbed their children and ran. It could have been the same people with different hair and clothes all removing children and vegetables from the street. The French government stance, coming as it did after these scenes, was a shock. France and everyone within its borders, we were told, had nothing to fear. We should carry on as usual as there was no chance that we would be harmed in any way by breathing French air. It was, in the words of a popular song, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Right on cue, our weatherman (wearing a dazzling smile) explained that the weather systems in the Hexagon (as the French weather report endearingly refers to France) would protect us from the poison cloud menacing France’s geographical neighbours. The next day of course the government was forced to back down under the tidal wave of anger by the French public (probably led by my French female colleagues who were all mothers). For me personally the consequence was an unhealthy distrust of any French government statements for a very long time.
At this point many people might quip “well no government is trustworthy!” Maybe not, but in a situation where wellbeing is threatened this is not really an option. Many people who “do not trust government” still eat food that governments guarantee and go to hospitals that governments license. When you live in your own country “trusting government” may mean politics but people living overseas, both citizens and visitors do sometimes need to make judgement calls on whether they trust officials of another government at all, as much or more than their own. Living in a European country throws this issue into sharp relief due to the nature of the European Union.
Most Americans if they know of the European Union at all probably think of it as a trade entity. Even those who know there is a European parliament are probably unaware how much European institutions directly impact every citizen. Passports of individual countries used to look different. In the past we could identify a British or Italian passport at 10 paces. Now you have to read the name on the cover to discover the nationality. They are now European citizens with passports sharing style and color. European employment law is the law of the land and British market sellers (sometimes known as “metric martyrs”) have been pursued in court for using pounds and other British measures instead of the metric system. Occasionally, British and other European citizens are confronted with the dilemma of official trust between their own government and the European Union. Because the instinct to have more faith in home grown officials is strong, the dilemma surfaces over issues like the food supply as in the 1996 BSE epidemic among cattle (mad cow disease).
The national conversation (sometimes in very elevated tones) was very confusing. On the one hand, the continental Europeans were pressing for a ban of British beef. On the other hand, the British government was saying the issue was contained even as new cases arose. Scottish farmers pointed out that the cases cited were in England, yet a “British” ban would affect them as well. The call for a ban was therefore self-serving on the part of the other European countries who stood to benefit from the absence of a major competitor. The English farmers pointed to the “porous Irish border” whence they claimed the disease entered Britain noting that no initiative to ban Irish beef was being proposed.
As the cases of infected cows rose along with inevitability of some kind of ban, hard-core defensiveness set in. Americans (including me) mentioning that perhaps more should be done to protect cattle noting we had not heard of a disease of this kind affecting US cattle were was rounded on “Aha! But YOU vaccinate them!!” Until then I had not realized they did not. What could we say? Yes, we vaccinate ourselves, our children and our cattle against disease. Apparently, the idea in Europe is to keep them free of chemicals. A great idea until you see them destroyed (actually murdered almost seems appropriate) by the thousands as eventually happened.
My problem was not for myself. I have never eaten much beef but food in Britain is very expensive and spaghetti with meat sauce was a fixture in our house for the children partly due to the lower prices of English beef. So I listened and watched and observed. Finally, the British tried to negotiate policies that would allow them to avoid an all out ban in order to minimize the harm to their industry. It was during this process that I came face to face with the novel idea that the European government might be composed of more reasonable people than the British government, at least on this issue. That the affected cows had to be destroyed was obvious but the British wanted to limit the numbers. As figures were batted back and forth in government and farm circles in London, a British reporter tried to get an answer from the source – a European Commission official with a responsibility for agriculture. Her English was very clear but very slow so we literally hung on every word. The reporter asked rapid fire questions that seemed to express the national fear of losing their beef farmers. For how many could survive a ban? Waving the mike in the official’s face he asked, “How many cows do you want us to kill? Five hundred? Do you want us to kill 5,000? How many cows do you want us to kill in order to stop the ban!?” The official replied slowly and calmly. “We don’t care if it is 50 cows – or 500 cows or 5,000 cows. Just kill the right cows.” The common sense in this simple pronouncement stunned the reporter into silence. I felt as though a blindfold had been removed from my eyes as I realized how one sided my news had been. Why had we not heard from this woman before? I didn’t wait for the ban. My neighbour and I (and many others) stopped buying beef from that moment until a few months after the ban was lifted.
When Chernobyl exploded the TV stations in France were all French and the internet did not exist. Ten years on, British TV had British stations unless you had satellite. Ten years after that with foreign networks and the internet the dilemma of trust has not changed. It is still in many cases a personal judgement despite and even because of an excess of information. As a result, I have made it a habit of speaking to people in the country with long memories and in Britain they have told me. “There is always something happening with the food here! A few years ago it was the milk” So rightly or wrongly, I have been very careful about British government pronouncements on food. I have even developed a personal trust barometer: my neighbour who is a doctor and a mother. I ask her to let me know when she decides to avoid particular foods and then alert me when her decision is reversed. Nearly fifteen years on my system is working.
Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_11430358_european-union-flags-in-front-of-the-berlaymont-building-in-brussels-belgium.html’>jankranendonk / 123RF Stock Photo</a>