Bitter taste of victory as ban is eased

Click to follow
Britain's conflict with Europe looked certain to intensify last night after the Government once again failed to secure political backing from its partners for an end to the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen.

Despite this clear rebuff, the proposal for easing the beef-derivatives ban is now set to be implemented but only as a result of the European Union's procedural rules.

Because European agriculture ministers were unable last night to take an outright decision to support the easing of the ban, the European Commission is now obliged automatically to enforce the measure by Sunday.

The Commission originally proposed the measure and now that it has gone through the procedure without a clear result the rules state that it must as a last resort enforce it.

The Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, speaking in Luxembourg, said: "This is an important step forward," but he warned that Britain's protest campaign of blocking all EU business would continue until a "framework" was approved for the step-by-step removal of the total ban on British beef.

Britain, however, can take scarce comfort from such an outcome which is, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. The overwhelming message from last night's meeting in Luxembourg was that European opposition to even a partial lifting of the ban remained deeply entrenched.

Six countries opposed the proposal presented by the European Commission. The opponents were Germany, Austria, Portugal, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. Spain, which had previously opposed the easing of the ban, changed its position but the new Spanish support was still not enough to give Britain a qualified majority to win a "yes" vote in the council.

Last night's outcome, announced at midnight after last-minute negotiations, will come as a severe disappointment to the European Commission, which had tried its utmost to secure political backing for its own proposal. The Commission is now left in the invidious position of implementing a measure without the qualified majority support from member-states, thereby risking accusations of making an undemocratic executive order.

Britain's failure to secure wider backing for the partial easing of the ban marks yet another drastic defeat for Mr Hogg, who yesterday presented a 121-page report outlining why Britain's eradication policy should be enough to win an end to the ban.

The result yesterday may well have been caused in part by Britain's intensified campaign of disruption of other European Union business.

Ivan Yates, the Irish Agriculture Minister, said, as negotiations were coming to a close, that the renewed use of the veto by Britain yesterday had been "counter-productive" and had "aggravated" an already difficult situation.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, comes to Luxembourg today to veto new measures including a plan to launch Europol, a Europe-wide policing network.

Such action, however, will appear doubly hollow given last night's lack of support.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, will travel to Brussels today to try to secure a longer-term framework for the lifting of the entire ban.

Britain's hopes of securing such a framework before the Florence summit, however, now appear to have been severely undermined.

European crisis, page 8,9