Today it's becoming increasingly clear that the E. coli outbreak in northern Germany, which has already sickened 1,500 people and killed 16 others, is also poisoning German-Spanish relations. The spat began last Thursday, when German officials announced that scientists in Hamburg had traced the source of the outbreak, at least in part, to organic Spanish cucumbers, only to concede on Tuesday that Spanish cucumbers were not, in fact, the cause. Spanish authorities say 150,000 tons of Spanish fruit and vegetables are rotting each week because of Germany's finger-pointing, costing farmers 200 million euros (almost $300 million) a week in lost sales and potentially endangering the livelihoods of 70,000 farm workers, in a country that is already reeling from 21 percent unemployment.
In an interview with Cadena Ser on Wednesday, Spain's deputy prime minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, said his country is considering taking legal action against the Hamburg authorities who "have cast doubt on the quality of our produce, adding that if Spanish produce really were to blame there would be E. coli cases in Spain (one case has been recorded so far, but the man had recently returned from Germany). The country's agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, added that Spain will seek E.U. compensation for all European vegetable producers who've suffered losses because of Germany's unwarranted claim. The agriculture minister of the Andalusian regional government, Clara Aguilera, characterized Spain as a scapegoat and even ate a homegrown cucumber on live television to register her anger with Germany and assure her constituents:
In this Reuters photo, meanwhile, a farmer in southeastern Spain throws out a cucumber crop he can't sell:
What's Germany's response? Hamburg's health minister, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks, has defended her decision to announce the preliminary test results from Hamburg scientists publicly. "It would have been irresponsible to withhold a well-founded suspicion given the high number of illnesses," she explained, according to The Guardian. "Protecting life is more important than protecting financial interests." She added that tests on two cucumbers from the southern Spanish region of Andalucia had indeed revealed a strain of E.coli--just not the highly virulent variety behind the recent outbreak.
The European Union's agriculture commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, says he's looking into compensating farmers for their losses, according to The New York Times. But even if the "cucumber wars" are soon resolved, The Guardian's Michael White thinks the squabble is indicative of a larger issue: the tendency of European countries to blame their neighbors when times get tough:
What have dodgy cucumbers with added E coli got to do with the Greek debt crisis? Not much, unless you notice a tendency among irate Germans to lash out and blame their fellow Europeans when something bad happens ...
This is another example of the risk that offset the benefits of having a highly integrated European market as part of an increasingly globalised economy.