Blair lifts hopes of end to beef ban

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is working on a strategy for lifting the European ban on British exports of beef, which could be the first glittering prize to be won from a closer relationship with Britain's European partners.

The lifting of the beef ban was raised yesterday at the first meeting between the Prime Minister and the current holders of the European Union presidency, led by the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, amid clear signals that Britain will sign up to a deal on closer union at the Amsterdam summit.

Underlining the new era of greater cooperation with Europe, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said after their lunch at Downing Street he believed Britain would not be isolated at the Inter-Governmental Conference. "I now believe that it will be possible for us to reach an agreement at Amsterdam."

Mr Blair is taking personal control of the beef strategy in the hope that the new mood of cooperation will produce dividends with the gradual lifting of the beef ban, which has cost Britain billions of pounds and thousands of jobs. One of his officials said: "He is totally seized of the importance of beef. He will be taking time to put together a real strategy on beef."

Mr Cook emerged from the meeting at Number 10 confirming that Britain will keep its border controls, in spite of a move at the Amsterdam summit on 16-17 June towards more open borders inside the EU with the completion of the single market.

Britain's new readiness to sign the social chapter - in the face of continued criticism by candidates for the Tory party leadership - was warmly welcomed by Mr Kok. The Dutch leader said: "Britain's decision to accept the social chapter, to be in favour of a strong employment paragraph in the treaty, is an enormous step forward."

The Foreign Secretary said the meeting with Mr Kok in the first week of the Labour government was "a sign of the way in which the new Labour government is being taken seriously in Europe and can do serious business with Europe".

Mr Cook said: "We are already making substantial progress to getting our objectives. One of the reasons for that is that we have identified those issues where Britain needs to score and does need to deliver.

"The problem with the sterile and negative attitude of the previous government is that they shouted no at everything and were not heard when they really meant it."

Downing Street and senior Cabinet ministers were keen to avoid raising expectations of an early lifting of the beef ban, but the Government has inherited an advanced plan for the partial lifting of export ban on beef from certified herds and that will be pushed forward in agriculture meetings later this month.

Jack Cunningham, the Agriculture minister, will start the process with a courtesy call to Franz Fichler, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, on Monday, before preparing for an Agriculture Council of Ministers meeting 20 May.

There was a widespread view in Whitehall that Douglas Hogg, his predecessor, failed to make the breakthrough because of the lack of political cooperation in Europe. John Major and his government complained that the refusal to lift the beef ban had gone beyond the scientific reasons, but Downing Street officials said the new Blair government would end the "ridiculous ideological hatreds" to begin more positive, constructive contacts.