The Prime Minister has repeatedly trumpeted the ending of the ban as an example of his pro-European Union strategy paying dividends. But the Conservatives said the German objections had blown a hole in his policy.
As Britain protested to Germany and the European Commission about the last-minute hitch, the Tories claimed this was the third time the Government had "oversold" the announcement that the ban was to be lifted. It had initially hoped beef exports would resume last August, but the target date was delayed to November and later put back to this spring before finally being set for last Sunday.
"Now it seems that it will not happen for weeks - perhaps months," said Ann Widdecombe, the Tory home affairs spokeswoman. "The Government has cruelly raised the hopes of British farmers just to get a good headline."
Ms Widdecombe said Britain should have realised that, before an ounce of beef could be exported, the EU's decision had to be enacted by member states through legislation. It also required political co- operation. "This development is a body blow to the Labour Government's boasts of `constructive engagement' in Europe," she said.
Ministers hope that the problems in Germany and France can be overcome without the European Commission resorting to legal action for failing to implement EU law, which could mean a further delay. The Commission warned Germany yesterday that it could act, but hinted at a pause until the country's parliament considered the issue in the autumn.
Germany's move is a severe setback for the British Government. In a keynote speech on Europe last month, Mr Blair said: "When we came to office, Britain was utterly marginalised; the beef ban was in place; we were at the nadir of our influence... We ended the beef ban by agreement with our partners on the basis of objective scientific evidence."
The Agriculture minister Elliot Morley said yesterday that "if Germany is going to drag its feet, we expect the Commission to take legal action against it".
He insisted that British beef "really does have the highest standards applied to it anywhere in the world" and that there had been "a clear endorsement from the Commission that British beef is safe".
Asked about Germany's insistence that more meetings were needed to ensure safety standards were being enforced, Mr Morley said German vets had been involved in Commission inspections which led to the lifting of the ban. They might want to "query a few points", he said, but that was "no justification"for delay.
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats' agriculture spokesman, warned that Germany's "unacceptable" action would harm Europe's image among the British people.
He said: "It cannot be acceptable for there to be further delay until the German parliament considers the issue in the autumn... it is important for the British Government to pull out all the stops to make the German government see sense."Reuse content