Beef: a deal, but Britain has lost influence

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After four torrid weeks, it was over in 90 seconds. That was how long it took the EU heads of government to approve the deal hammered out by their foreign ministers to end the 1996 beef war.

Even ministers were taken by surprise. Kenneth Clarke was already miked up, ready to do an interview which would say the deal was some hours away. Malcolm Rifkind, on a mobile phone, caught him just in time with the news.

It was over; had it all been worthwhile?

Under the microscope the complications in the deal become apparent. Britain will compile reports stating when it has completed each stage of the BSE eradication programme, but it will be up to the Commission's veterinary committee to approve or not. A British source accepted this may not be plain sailing: if the committee comes back with legitimate scientific objections, Britain will take account of them; but if they come back "with bogus arguments in bad faith, we would be back in crisis".

And even when the Commission agrees to a stage-by-stage lifting of the ban, individual countries may defy it.

Mr Major's hard-won concession over exports to third countries - which will be considered separately - is unlikely to yield practical results and has left partner countries bitter. As a British official put it, they "clearly didn't like the policy and they made that absolutely clear".

The whole affair casts a cloud over the Inter-Governmental Conference negotiations on updating the Maastricht Treaty. Here, the Government will be under pressure at home to set an anti-federalist agenda, and Mr Major is committed to digging in over specific areas. A senior British source said: "Parliament will expect us to deliver."

But this will now be much more difficult. The EU gets along on deal- making, trade-offs and alliances, but even before the crisis, Britain was having difficulty winning allies.

In the IGC, the Government was already saying "No" to reforms, delaying substantial progress. There was also anger all around over the Government's refusal to allow Europol, the policing network for Europe, to go ahead. And there was annoyance at Britain's attitude towards the Social Chapter.

When Mr Major suddenly needed friends to dig him out of the beef quagmire, he can hardly have been surprised to find there were none to hand. Even the new Scandinavian members, which Britain had counted on as friends when they joined, kept their distance.

Now Britain's partners are already firing new warning shots. Britain's "serial vetoing" - as one foreign minister termed it - has reinforced determination to find new forms of flexible decision-making and prevent a single country holding up the rest. Belgium has proposed sanctions against any country which attempts to block EU business in this way in future.

For Britain's partners, the beef affair has also confirmed the thanklessness of dealing with the present government. German diplomats are pleased the beef war has not helped the Tories in the polls; preventing this had been an objective among the EU partners, they said. And the Germans were also saying, more clearly than ever before, that from now on they are waiting for Tony Blair.