News, Culture & Society

QUENTIN LETTS: How Penka the cow sums up all that’s wrong with the EU 

Have you heard about Penka the cow? 

Until a few days ago, Penka was known to almost nobody except her owner, a Bulgarian farmer called Ivan Haralampiev.

Then she went missing. 

Cows do this sort of thing and are usually soon found grazing on a neighbour’s flower-beds.

Alas, Penka made the mortal error of stepping outside the European Union (of which Bulgaria has been a member since 2007). She then tried to re-enter the EU.

Alas, Penka the cow made the mortal error of stepping outside the European Union (of which Bulgaria has been a member since 2007). She then tried to re-enter the EU

As a result of which she was sentenced to death because she lacked the correct paperwork. 

In one of the more quirky — yet highly telling — political news events of the early summer, Penka is now the talk not just of her village of Kopilovtsi — which, to be honest, is not much of a size — and the province of Kyustendil.

Her name is also on the lips of the most important people in her country’s capital, Sofia. 

She is even being discussed in Brussels, headquarters of the European Empire, and Berlin, where she has made the front page of Germany’s most popular newspaper.

Here in Britain, a Conservative MEP from Norfolk has taken up Penka’s case, while a petition has been started to demand that she be spared her impending execution on the orders of EU-citing jobsworths.

But at the time of writing, they were declining to grant her her freedom, saying only that tests are being done on her in quarantine, and that her fate won’t be decided for several days — which doesn’t exactly sound like a pardon.

In order to understand this very European farce, we had better start where most farm stories start, which is out in the meadow, down among the cowslips and the dungflies, where ruminants swish their tails and brooks gurgle.

Penka herself is not able to give testimony, her repertoire being limited to bovine backfirings and grunts, but it seems she was minding her own business one mid-May evening, chewing on her well-trimmed acre, when she noticed some rather more lush terrain just over the way.

You know how it is: the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, particularly in western Bulgaria when the temperatures are rising.

Had farmer Ivan accidentally left the gate ajar? Had the latch become loose with age? It happens to us all in time. 

Until a few days ago, Penka was known to almost nobody except her owner, a Bulgarian farmer called Ivan Haralampiev

Until a few days ago, Penka was known to almost nobody except her owner, a Bulgarian farmer called Ivan Haralampiev

One push from Penka’s blunted horns and the gate gave way. She went for a wander.

That night, it seems, she may have been chased by wolves. Cows can move pretty quickly. 

They can cover a lot of ground, particularly when baying wolves are snapping at their hind hooves.

Before long, Penka had crossed the border into the neighbouring state of Serbia. Which is not (yet) in the EU. 

Farmer Ivan, on finding that Penka had vanished, was distressed.

Officials who work for government departments in dusty cities may not always understand this, but a cow is more than just an animal.

For dairy farmers, a cow can be a friend, a status symbol and an investment, particularly if they are pregnant, as Penka is (she is due to give birth in three weeks).

And so Ivan Haralampiev and his sons went searching for Penka.They cush-cushed, they rang bells, they checked the usual haunts. Nothing. 

Being good citizens, they notified the border authorities, the police and mayors in nearby villages. Please, had anyone seen our brown, rather sweet-faced cow?

After two weeks, word came from Bosilegrad, a village a few miles away, just inside Serbia. 

Penka had been found! Great was the jubilation. The farmer climbed into his dusty vehicle and went to collect the adventuress.

Great was the back-slapping when he collected Penka and got her into her trailer after a Serbian vet had given her a formal health check and confirmed that she was in a fit condition to return home. 

Then the problems started.

When farmer Ivan tried to cross over the border back into Bulgaria, he encountered one of those creatures which are even deadlier than a pack of central European wolves.

He came face to face with .. . an EU border guard with a clipboard and an over-developed, almost priestly regard for The Rules.

‘Papers!’ barked this Bulgarian border bossyboots.

‘Papers?’ asked Ivan.

I like to imagine that he and Penka at this moment turned and gave one another a mutual look of bewilderment. ‘Certificate!’ snapped the border guard.

It was explained that under EU Commission guidelines, ‘a certification must accompany animals en route to the EU, when they are presented for entry into the EU at an approved EU Border Inspection Post’.

No doubt it is written in the EU’s 24 official languages, available in Braille and other formats, and can be found on the website of the relevant EU authorities, if your taste runs to that sort of thing.

Oh come off it, tried Ivan, pushing to the back of his tired head the rather natty hat he favours. It has a multi-coloured ribbon and says ‘BULGARIA’ on it.

This chap is not one of life’s troublemakers. He is just a patriotic small-town farmer trying to make an honest lev (Bulgaria’s currency, which by unhappy chance is fixed to the euro). He tried to explain that his cow had gone for a gallop and he was simply retrieving her.

This cut no mercy from the border clipboards. As one of them told the Agence France-Presse: ‘It is not for us to decide — we are only implementing rules that come from Brussels.’

As a result of Penka’s failure to fill in the right forms, she was herewith sentenced to death.

Go online and you can see Bulgarian TV’s coverage. I haven’t a clue what it says, but Penka looks adorable, farmer Ivan looks a bit hot and bothered (although possibly enjoying his moment in the sun).

And officialdom? It just looks cruel and nasty.

Who is the silly moo here?

A pregnant cow, her rural owner or a supra-national system which is so stiff and unyielding that it cannot see the damage it causes to itself by refusing to bend to basic common sense?

Was it really beyond the border guard’s nous to use some initiative and allow Ivan Haralampiev and his farm truck to pass through just this once?

Are customs bosses in the province of Kyustendil really so powerless to permit exceptions? Or is it that they, like so many bureaucrats, actually enjoy making life difficult for the citizens they are supposed to serve?

For the European Union, which is currently kicking up a frightful to-do over the future border between Ireland (which is in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which is soon to leave the EU), what does this case show?

There are an awful lot of cows on either side of that border. Local vets may need to ready themselves for a slaughter, if Brussels is going to take this line.

Does the tale of Penka present the EU as a reservoir of practical and amiable administration, or a realm of hectoring, more-than-my-job’s-worth martinets determined above all else to follow the small-print of rules written by remote Brussels legislators?

And is it not just a little rum that a European Union which has been so utterly hopeless at patrolling its borders to prevent illegal migration by humans — indeed, it gaily waved them through in their hundreds of thousands — is now laying down the law and demanding that Penka, with her long eyelashes and maternal bump, have a bolt shot into her brain because she trotted a few hundred yards onto the wrong side of a border into territory they do not yet control?

Thank goodness we are leaving.