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Fowl play: Europe's chicken-and-egg conundrum
EU Chicken W
In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 6, 2012, battery caged hens are pictured at a chicken farm in Fleurus, Belgium. A dozen years after the European Union set Jan. 1, 2012, as the date to eliminate the most cramped cages to improve the living standards of egg-laying hens, half of the 27 European Union nations have failed to fully comply. - photo by Associated Press

FLEURUS, Belgium — When Eric Pierart takes in the chaotic wiggling of thousands of hens caged in his renovated barn, he's reminded of how tough it is for Europe to unite on anything.

And how much time it takes.

A dozen years after the European Union set Jan. 1, 2012 as the date to eliminate the most cramped cages to improve the living standards of egg laying hens, half of the 27 European Union nations have failed to fully comply — a flop seen as a metaphor for Europe's current state of disarray.

"In all, they have been talking about it for 30 years," complained the ruddy-cheeked Pierart, who adhered to the new rules.

"Now, it shows that common ideas for everyone are still hard to come by."

Such is the way of the EU, where legislation seeps through layers of political and institutional granite in 27 nations at barely a trickle. And it affects a lot more than just the happiness of chickens.

Take the global economy.

For nearly two years, the world has been crying out for immediate and drastic measures to combat a debt crisis that has threatened to trigger a worldwide depression.

For nearly two years, the world has come away frustrated with explanations that Europe is not a legislative superhighway.

Now the fate of the lowly laying hen is again underscoring how slow a process it is to get everyone in the quilt of nations that is the European Union to unite on a common cause.

Many chicken farmers who made the heavy investment on time are now at a competitive disadvantage from laggards who didn't. Pierart says he spent some €1.5 million ($1.9 million) on new equipment for 100,000 chickens.

In this chicken-and-egg situation, it's hard to pinpoint who's ultimately to blame.

Some fault the glacial pace of continentwide legislation, as well as the EU's poor checks, controls and enforcement.

Others point the finger at the perceived bad faith of some EU nations, seen as turning a laudable ideal into a logistical mess.

"If it is already so difficult for this, then how tough is it for 27 nations on much bigger issues?" Pierart asked.

It's all deepened well-worn stereotypes that have long dogged the European Union — about how the less affluent south and east skirt the rules, about how upright nations like Germany end up paying for it all, and about the bloated EU institutions that seem unable to do anything about it.

Those institutions, often identified simply as "Brussels", can be a soft target. Fix something, and they're accused of meddling. When things goes wrong, they're accused of inaction or incompetence.

"It's an absolute joke," said Ian Plant, the owner of Plants Eggs in England's Lincolnshire, who, like Pierart, made the switch on time.

"This is such a serious situation that someone at the end of the day has to get to grips with it."

Even EU Consumer Policy Commissioner Dalli has said the hen imbroglio is undermining the EU's credibility.

His office said that 14 member states are still not complying with the rules, including France, Italy, Poland and Spain.

That has particularly irked Britain, which has deep animal rights traditions and often seizes on any perceived slight from the European Union.

"It is unacceptable that after the ban on battery cages comes into effect around 50 million hens across Europe will still remain in poor conditions," said British Agriculture Minister Jim Paice.

The European Commission says the total stands at 46 million hens still kept in illegal battery cages out of 330 million, or roughly 14 percent.

The new rules require cages to boost living space per hen to at least 750 sq. centimeters (115 sq. inches) from at least 550 square centimeters (85 square inches), among other measures.

"We have all had plenty of time to make these changes," Paice said. "It would be unthinkable if countries continuing to house hens in poor conditions were to profit from flouting the law."

The European Commission says it will be sending inspectors and starting legal proceedings against the recalcitrant nations as soon as possible. But those, too, can be lengthy, and meanwhile member states are left to deal with the potentially unfair competition as best they can.

"It can go all the way to the European Court of Justice," said EU Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent, referring to the EU's highest court. "It can lead to penalties."

To many farmers, though, that is too little too late.

And animal welfare activists are equally frustrated. The cock-up with the hens reminds Michel Vandenbosch, leader of Belgian animal rights group Gaia, of how Greece — whose debt woes triggered the financial crisis — cooked its budgetary books for years until it was found out in 2009.

"Greece made a fool of the EU for years," Vandenbosch said. "And now in this case too, they see things when it is too late."

After all the years of work, Vandenbosch said the campaign to win hens a bit more wiggle room almost wasn't worth the effort.

"Chickens won't notice the difference," he said. Instead of working with EU politicians, he said his organization has had at least as much success working on market players like Unilever, which is now moving well beyond EU rules and toward using only eggs from cage-free birds in their food products.

"Politics will have to realize how the market reacts, and they will have to follow," Vandenbosch said.

In England, Plant said his renovations cost several million pounds.

"Having made this sort of investment, having been told by our government all the way along that this legislation was gold-plated, that it had to be completed by Jan. 1, we are now very disillusioned to find that substantial parts of Europe haven't complied," he said.

And when Europe fails, many still look to national borders as a line of defense.

"We're now faced with a situation where something has to be done about these illegal eggs coming onto the British market," said Plant.

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