Something’s Rotten in Europe

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TIME’s Leo Cendrowicz writes from Brussels about what the controversy — and hysteria — over E.coli in vegetable produce is doing to the already fraying bonds of the European Union.

Originally the authorities in Hamburg identified the source of the outbreak as Spanish cucumbers. This was not only incorrect but led to an acrimonious argument between Spain and Germany, with Madrid demanding compensation for the damage done. It is estimated that 150,000 tons of cucumbers went unsold in Spain, with the losses put at more than 200 million Euros ($290 million) a week. Given the importance of the agricultural sector to a Spanish economy (which is already burdened by more than 20% unemployment), German finger-pointing had a clear cost. It was, perhaps, a classic clash between Germanic over-caution and Latin pride, and had echoes in the ongoing Eurozone saga that pits Berlin’s stern budget balancing against the perceived profligacy of southern Europe…

The economic cost is significant for Germany too. The German Farmers’ Association has estimated that vegetable farmers are losing around 30 million Euros a week in sales. Restaurants, suppliers and markets have also been hit hard. But there are the wider ramifications. Two countries have banned all E.U. farm products altogether: Lebanon and, all the more significantly, Russia. E.U. countries export between Euro 3 billion and Euro 4 billion ($4.3 billion and $5.8 billion) fresh fruit and vegetable to Russia per year, primarily in apples, making it by far the largest export market for European growers. That includes 11% of its tomatoes and 5% of cucumbers. The Europeans believe that Moscow is being malicious, trying to gain the upper hand as it maneuvers toward joining the World Trade Organization (talks begin June 9). Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the ban may go against “the spirit of the World Trade Organization… but cucumbers that people die after eating really stink.”

Read more here.