After British bravado comes a hasty retreat

Click to follow
John Major yesterday gave way to the inevitable and, having enjoyed four weeks' defiant bravado, prepared to swing into hasty retreat and accept a Brussels beef package that delivered none of his initial demands.

Last night, EU veterinary officials approved the British BSE eradication strategy only after obtaining a pledge from Britain that it would slaughter any animal born from 1988 which might have been exposed to the BSE infection.

Britain caved in to German and Austrian demands that the slaughter plan, originally intended to target 80,000 animals, be extended from the earlier proposed selective cull to include animals born in 1989.

British officials said they had agreed to undertake that any traceable suspect animal will `jump the queue' in the existing slaughter programmes for cattle over 30 months old.

While Tory backbenchers seemed ready to follow Mr Major's lead into headlong retreat, there had been no certainty last night that all the EU partners would, in the end, be so amenable.

Speaking of the proposal to cull from 1989, Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said last night: "This is a massive climbdown. The Government has settled for a piece of paper which contains no dates and no guarantees."

That indictment prompted a belated offensive from ministers, with an unprecedented Commons press conference staged at five minutes' notice by Roger Freeman, the Cabinet minister who has been put in charge of the cattle cull.

Attempting to quash damaging suggestions that there had been no timetable involved, he said the feed ban and a cattle passport scheme would be in force by 1 August. The hope was that the effort could trigger the lifting on the ban on the export of grass-fed, BSE herds.

But when he was asked by the Independent to identify the trigger for lifting the ban on all British beef exports to countries outside Europe, Mr Freeman said: "I'm focusing on what happens immediately; what is the next step. I can't answer that. That is further down the road. I'm not trying to avoid it. I just don't know the answer."

Mr Freeman had also dismissed the calculation by the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, of 67,000 extra cattle to be culled, putting his own estimate of 25,000 on the extra kill - which would be voluntary and based on additional cash incentive.

Never the less, Paul Marland, the MP for Gloucestershire West and chairman of the Tory backbench agriculture committee, said: "We haven't come all this way to be let down. It would be very, very difficult to get this through the Commons."

But the sceptic former Chancellor, Norman Lamont, said it was time for the Tories to "knuckle down" in the run-up to the general election.

In the tradition of all EU settlements, all sides should have enough to claim a victory at the EU summit in Florence on Friday and Saturday.

But, based on the outlines of the deal that emerged early yesterday, the Prime Minister by then had achieved nothing that could not have been achieved by patient negotiation.

Mr Major has made several concessions which will anger Euro-sceptics and farmers alike.His policy of confrontation and non-co-operation has, meanwhile, caused unquantifiable damage to Britain's standing in Europe, say observers.

But if all goes as planned, Mr Major will have his "framework" for the gradual lifting of the export ban on British beef, something which was definitely not on the table when he started his policy of non-co-operation. The ban will be lifted in stages. And the European Commission, three specialist committees and a majority of EU governments will have to be satisfied at each stage that Britain is properly enforcing the new proposals.

"He [Mr Major] will claim his victory. But we will claim ours," a German official said. "We have been begging the British for eight or nine years to come up with a comprehensive, verifiable plan for eradicating BSE . . . we have it now."

Cattle failure, page 2