Good friends slip on a banana skin

Iraq is not the only target for US sanctions; so is Britain, at least as far as sheep's milk, candle

The French journalist could barely contain his satisfaction. It was the day after the United States had stopped bombing Iraq, with the able assistance of the RAF, and Britain's little-noticed reward was the announcement in Washington of a list of trade sanctions against the European Union, which will actually bear heaviest on America's most loyal ally. This is in pursuit of a trade war which, if it goes ahead, will be one of the most grotesque if not malign of recent times. If no solution is found, we are just a month away from a war between the US and EU. Over bananas.

This absurd conflict is over the import licences of bananas. Former European colonies (mainly British and French) get slightly preferential treatment over central American producers exporting bananas to the EU. The banana is a crop which the US does not export to Europe - but many of the Latin American bananas, or"dollar bananas", happen to be grown on estancias owned by US companies. The crop plays a minuscule part in annual trade between Europe and America; the quarrel over its export to the EU will cost jobs in British industries whose only connection with the fruit is in the lunchboxes of its employees.

It all makes for a notable test for the World Trade Organisation, set up in 1994, which is supposed to handle disputes like this but which may have expected its first big challenge between two of the world's largest trading blocs to arise from something rather more significant, particularly in a time of international economic crisis. Our government's much vaunted closeness to Bill Clinton has availed us absolutely nothing. We will be hit hardest by the American sanctions imposed as a result of the dispute. When it comes down to it, Washington knows on which side its fruit is peeled.

Hence the Frenchman's suave question to the European Commission in Brussels: "Are the sanctions a mark of the special relationship?" he asked smugly. "Or is this Britain's reward for supporting the United States' action in the Gulf?"

The Commission estimates that the list of unilateral sanctions the US government announced on 21 December will cost industries in the European Union about £350 million a year, nearly £85 million of that in the UK alone. The products targeted for the imposition of 100 per cent tariffs are a bizarre mix whose only uniting characteristic is that none of them has the remotest link with bananas, or any other fruit for that matter.

In the ponderously exact prose of the US Trade Department, it includes: "Pecorino cheese, from sheep's milk, in original loaves, not suitable for grating, sweet biscuits, bath preparations, other than bath salts, candles, tapers and the like, handbags, with or without shoulder straps, articles of a kind normally carried in the pocket or handbag with outer surface of reinforced or laminated plastics, uncoated felt paper and paperboard in rolls or sheets, folding cartons, printed cards (except postcards) . . ."

Take that! The rationale in Washington for the list is that it represents the equivalent value in trade of what it estimates US banana companies are losing in Europe. What is really happening, though, is that the American administration is threatening the eclectic mix of goods in pursuit of the right of its own multinational fruit exporters, chiefly the Cincinatti-based company Chiquita, to obtain what would effectively be monopoly rights over the 3.7 million tonnes of bananas consumed in the EU each year.

The EU's banana regime has long been a source of contention. It was devised to give a certain amount of protection to bananas produced in former colonies, not just in the West Indies but also places such as the Ivory Coast and the Canaries. The American view is that this has handicapped access to European markets for the "dollar bananas" - thus threatening the sacred profit-making potential of US companies. This has not stopped those companies cornering 70 per cent of the banana trade with the EU. As Sir Leon Brittan, the EU Trade Commissioner, sniffed: "They don't seem to be doing too badly out of it."

The US itself does not export a single banana to Europe. Politics is behind its stance: the rhetoric from the US has increased markedly since November's Congressional elections. Although the US first started muttering about bananas under George Bush, it is the Clinton administration that has really pursued the matter. When it made a complaint to the WTO, within 24 hours, the Chiquita chairman, Carl H Lindner Jnr, who had previously made donations only to the Republican Party, suddenly started giving away money to the Democrats as well.

Lindner is a religious man and one who apparently likes to give out gold-embossed cards bearing his philosophy: "I like to do my giving while I'm living so I know where it's going." His company is estimated to be worth $14 billion.

If his company and its fellows such as Del Monte get their way, small, independent banana-growers in some of the most impoverished islands of the Caribbean are likely to be pushed out of business. They may then turn to other, more profitable, products with a readier market in the US, such as cocaine. Some believe that Chiquita's complaint followed its ill-advised decision to sell its Caribbean plantations six years ago.

The American multinationals produce their bananas - larger and less sweet than Caribbean ones - on large estates in central and Latin America where their record as employers is distinctly unsavoury.

Peter Scher, the US administration's special trade ambassador, disavows any notion of wanting to harm the Caribbean banana trade. The regrettable necessity was that Europe had to be punished for not opening its markets sufficiently in accordance with a ruling by the WTO in Geneva. "We are showing there is a cost to pay for Europe's failure to comply with its obligations," he said. "This is about a much broader issue than bananas. It is about whether the WTO system will work. If it fails, there will be pressure in this country to act unilaterally."

The WTO panel ruled in September 1997 that the US was justified in its complaint that the EU's fiendishly complicated banana import regulations amounted to unfair discrimination and that the rules must be changed. The Caribbean countries were not allowed to give evidence as they were not a direct party to the issue. The panel, chaired by a former US congressman, contained a Japanese representative but no one from the developing world.

The EU claims it has now changed its rules in ten respects. The US contends that not enough has been done to make access fair. Bananas merely head a rising number of complaints from US producers against the EU and its regulatory approach over issues such as genetically modified crops and meat reared using hormones and antibiotics.

Sir Leon claims the US is defying the spirit of the WTO by imposing unilateral duties. The US claims it is entitled to do so because the EU failed to meet its responsibilities by obeying the WTO ruling against it. The only thing standing in the way of hostilities is a request by Ecuador that the WTO panel should reconvene to decide whether the EU's revised regulations do indeed comply with the ruling.

That will be a big test of the WTO's authority. Should European consumers be free to choose bananas from the Windward Islands? Or should an elderly American billionaire be licensed to extend his empire as a domestic political trade-off? One is tempted to say that it's a banana skin on which the WTO should not be allowed to slip.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood