Beef ban stays as Major faces Commons defeat

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John Major faces a Commons defeat and a new crisis following his failure at the Dublin summit yesterday to get a promise that the EU's beef ban on Britain will be lifted.

The nine Ulster Unionist MPs are likely to withdraw their support in a crucial Commons division after the Prime Minister's attempt to raise the issue was kicked into touch. The British government will now have to go through a lengthy procedure even to allow animals from "certified herds" to be sold abroad. Officials at the EU summit said agreement would take weeks to reach and a meeting of agriculture ministers in Brussels tomorrow will only hear a report of progress - even if the government announces plans tomorrow to slaughter around 100,000 more cattle.

Later on Monday the Commons will vote on EU fisheries policy - an issue on which Unionist support cannot be guaranteed. The nine Unionist MPs are particularly concerned about the beef ban because of the low incidence of BSE in the province. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, had been pressing for an agreement at the Dublin summit, and an easing of the ban in Northern Ireland's "certified herds" is seen as a first step.

Now the process for any easing looks to be a long-drawn out one. On Monday Britain will make a presentation to which the Commission will have to respond. Detailed plans for the certified herd scheme will go before both the the scientific veterinary committee and the multi-disciplinary scientific committee. It will also need to be discussed by a 15 strong standing veterinary committee.

One official said yesterday: "This will not be resolved in a matter of days." At the dinner for heads of government on Friday night Mr Major sought to raise the prospects of a speedy lifting of the ban, outlining additional British government plans to cull around 100,000 more cattle. Earlier in the week he had been warned by the Irish presidency not to pursue the issue because heads of government were unlikely to give a positive response.

As had been predicted by the presidency, the European leaders referred the matter to agriculture ministers and their existing procedures.

At the end of yesterday's Dublin summit, Mr Major claimed success for his opposition to radical reform of the EU. The Prime Minister said Britain's position was "not to keep pulling it up by its roots to see if it can be replanted but to build on what exists." He added: "We are not proposing to surrender the veto and it can only be surrendered if there is consensus and our partners know there will not be such consensus." He again rejected the new EU proposal for abolition of all internal frontier controls by 2001. "Our border controls are not going to be changed. We have a wholly different tradition," he said referring to Britain's island status.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, was able to argue that he has finally quashed suggestions that Britain might be subject to the rules and fines of the so-called stability pact, even if it does not join the single currency. Referring to the summit conclusions, he produced his "copper- bottomed" guarantees that Britain would be exempt.