National sovereignty can sometimes seem an abstract concept. But what does it really mean? If Britain’s ash trees could talk, they would give a clear reply. For the ash trees of Britain, abandonment of national sovereignty could mean extinction.
As long ago as 15 September 2009 the Horticultural Trades Association, concerned about the spread of ash dieback from imported trees, a threat it compared with Dutch elm disease, wrote to the Forestry Commission asking for a ban on ash imports. The response, dated 26 October, was as pathetic a piece of hand-wringing impotence as you are likely to see from any government. It’s there in full on the Horticultural Trade Association’s website.
The Forestry Commission claimed that the fungus behind the disease was present in Britain. “That fact alone precludes us from initiating an emergency response under the EU Plant Health Directive (and we would also fall foul of our international obligations under the WTO).”
It even ruled out a Pest Risk Analysis, on the basis that a European body had concluded that “a PRA is no longer relevant”.
The letter ends: “I am sorry this is not the response you had hoped for but I hope you understand how our hands are tied. All I can recommend for the moment is that the industry carefully considers where it sources its planting material and monitors its purchases for signs of ill health.”
The attitude is plain: Britain’s ash trees, for centuries an iconic component of the British countryside, can rot just so long as the European Union and the World Trade Organization are not offended. The market is more important than our countryside. Obligations to the EU and the WTO matter more than our environment.
Worse, our governments, Labour and Coalition, are infected with the idea that any kind of action to stand up for the interests of Britain is likely to run counter to their own (and the EU’s) policies. Their default mode is not to ask what is good for the country, but what is right by the treaties they have signed. “Our hands are tied,” they say, again and again.
Finally, after more and more cases of ash dieback had been found in Britain – and after front-page news stories – the government acted, though with cowardly caution. In August it assessed whether there was a case for a Pest Risk Analysis, before daring to actually carry out the analysis. Finally it introduced legislation allowing a ban on imported ash trees, which came into effect on 29 October. That may be too late for the ash trees. Time will tell. ■