A fig leaf for Major

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday went as naked as Michelangelo's David into the conference chamber of the Florence summit, and came out with a diplomatic fig leaf on the "mad cow" beef ban.

The face-saver, conceded by European Union heads of government, will allow the Prime Minister to go back to the Commons on Monday with a token deal on the export of British beef to non-EU countries such as South Africa.

But it leaves Mr Major dangerously exposed. The deal rules that if any country wants to buy British beef "exclusively for its domestic market" the application will first have to be vetted and sanctioned by the European Commission - offering only the slightest glimmer of hope to those hoping for the resumption of exports to non-EU countries.

That contrasted with the emphatic British demand this week for an instant end to the ban, condemned as "illogical, when 56m Brits are allowed to eat it."

Asked by Channel Four News whether the deal was not a figleaf, Mr Major said last night: "I dare say there are lots of people who would like to hide the fact that we've solved this." He later told BBC's Newsnight: "Leaving this problem to fester and roll on would be the worst thing we could possibly have done for relations between the UK and our European partners."

There seemed to be no end to the trials and tribulations of Mr Major, who has allegedly been threatened with resignation by the Europe Minister David Davis.

In northern France, effigies of the Prime Minister were burned and a boatload of British tourists was blockaded by French farmers who took to the streets to protest against the damage done to the French beef industry by Britain's BSE crisis.

There is a double irony in yesterday's deal, with the Conservative Party's Euro-philes and sceptics uniting behind plans to hand over supervision of a new single market in beef to the Brussels Commission. At the same time the Government is appealing to the much-criticised European Court of Justice to wipe out the ban on all beef exports.

The meagre concession, agreed by the heads of government yesterday, along with agreement on an overall framework for a phased lifting of European Union sanctions against British beef, was welcomed by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. He said: "Our policy of non-cooperation now ceases."

Mr Rifkind added that he was particularly pleased there would be a case- by-case examination of non-EU export applications, and that judgements would be made "only and exclusively on the basis of public health and objective scientific criteria".

But Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister said: "My conclusion is that it would be extremely unlikely that British beef would be exported to third countries before the ban is lifted for the EU."

French officials said yesterday's agreement "does not mean a lifting of the embargo in whole or in part".

A commission source said no beef exports would be approved for South Africa, or anywhere else, unless they could be approved for consumption in France and Germany.

Mr Rifkind said people who had been told this were misinformed. However, shortly afterwards, a British representitive could be seen listening to a press briefing in which a Commission official said: "In practice, this declaration means nothing."

Exports were theoretically possible but improbable. Mr Rifkind said earlier: "I entirely accept it doesn't mean that we are guaranteed to get exports to third countries." But there had been no cover at all before yesterday's fig-leaf was provided.

The row over whether Mr Davis had threatened to resign provided light relief in Florence. Reports of his threat to quit were rejected by everyone from the Prime Minister down as "rubbish", "silly", "rum" and "nonsense", but all refused to deny Mr Davis had written a resignation letter.

One British source became so exasperated by journalists' questions about the letter that he rounded on his tormenters and called them "a bunch of clapped-out reporters".

Mr Davies belatedly arrived in Florence yesterday, to add his weight to the British negotiating team on issues related to the Inter-Governmental Conference on the future shape of Europe. But he steered well clear of the press corps.

The Foreign Secretary said of the resignation threat: "It is absolute rubbish. The minister in question has made it absolutely clear it's absolute rubbish. He has been working extremely closely with me throughout the last month on this beef question ... and he is as delighted as I am as to the outcome."

But Mr Rifkind, too, refused to answer the question, as to whether Mr Davies had written and submitted a resignation letter in the first place.

Although Mr Major will portray the Florence deal as a final settlement, other EU leaders saw it simply as a mechanism to end the British campaign of disruption.

Furthermore, there were strong signs yesterday that the EU will now move to prevent any country launching a campaign of disruption again.

Jean Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, said the EU must now find "mechanisms" to sanction countries which engage in British-style blocking tactics. He proposed that the powers of any member state to use the veto should be reduced, or that such countries should lose EU funding.

The conflict looks likely to erupt again as early as next week, when EU agriculture ministers meet again in Luxembourg to examine Britain's efforts to implement its BSE eradication plan.

Britain's best hope for a far-reaching settlement lies with the European Court of Justice, a body which the Government believes is too powerful, but which is now considering Britain's legal challenge to the ban. A decision on Britain's preliminary application for a temporary suspension of the ban "in whole or in part" is expected with days.

French fury, page 3

Leading article, page 13