Ban worsens UK relations with Brussels

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The Independent Online


Britain's European partners yesterday formally closed the door on British beef and imposed an indefinite ban effective throughout the fifteen member states.

The trade boycott, which the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, said would extend to exports of British beef and cattle to non-EU countries, was agreed by chief veterinary officers who outvoted Britain by fourteen to one. It will not affect meat on sale in British shops however.

The move confirms decisions by all but two of the EU countries to close their borders to British beef and cattle. The move yesterday provoked a furious response from John Major who urged Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, to reconvene the meeting to hear evidence from British officials. Mr Santer agreed the meeting would reconvene today but the decision yesterday threatens to plunge already tense relations between the UK and its European Union partners into crisis.

Britain's chief vet, Keith Meldrum, who argued vehemently against the ban, emerged from the day-long meeting to accuse his European colleagues of ignoring the advice of scientists.

"The proposal was rushed, unscientific and disproportionate," he said. "I am concerned that not enough time was given to this. The proposal is not properly scientifically based."

Mr Meldrum stressed that neither British nor European scientists had recommended such action. Furious British officials - who described the move as "ramshackle, hasty, ill thought out and having no basis in science" - said the ban also extended to cattle semen and embryos which even the European Commission acknowledged harboured no risk.

Other representatives said the atmosphere had been acrimonious "There was a lot of strong feeling against Britain" said one.

Anger in Brussels at the British government's handling of the crisis erupted earlier. In a letter to the agriculture minister Douglas Hogg, Mr Fischler, accused the government of failing to keep it informed. He suggested that London had triggered an unnecessary Europe-wide beef collapse.

If the problem was as serious as it sounded, he wrote, then the measures announced by London appeared inadequate. If, on the other hand the new evidence added little to the existing body of knowledge on the possible link between BSE and CJD "a more careful reaction would have been preferable".

A spokesman confirmed that no inkling had been conveyed to Britain's EU partners or the Commission during a meeting of the 15 agriculture ministers last Monday.

There was a strong feeling, senior officials said, that London was not being as forthcoming with Brussels as it ought particularly in light of the government's demands for substantial sums of aid.

Mr Fischler said any claims for compensation from Brussels would have to be scientifically based.

The commissioner suggested that if beef prices fell through the floor in Britain Brussels would open the doors of "intervention", the CAP's system for propping up prices.