Blocking tactics hit Mid-East dialogue

Beef war: Britain's disruption campaign could affect Europe's political and trade relations with the rest of the world
Click to follow
Britain will next week pursue its beef war by blocking European Union dialogue with Syria, at a crucial moment in the Middle East peace process.

Farouq al-Sharwa, the Syrian foreign minister, will fly into Luxembourg on Tuesday, hoping that the EU will take a strong new role as interlocutor in the Middle East, following the election of the right-wing Likud government in Israel.

Instead, Mr al-Sharwa will be told, at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, that due to the crisis over so-called "mad cow disease", the EU cannot give a "common position" on the future of the Middle East.

Important meetings between the EU and Latin American leaders also look certain to be undermined. President Carlos Menem, of Argentina, and four Latin American foreign ministers, are flying to Luxembourg hoping to hear the EU's "common position" on a new political and economic dialogue.

However, fearing a British veto, the EU's Italian presidency has already decided that the meetings with the ministers will have no formal agenda. As a result, President Menem and the other Latin American leaders will return home without any firm conclusions on the next stage of their association.

Political and trade agreements with Canada and Algeria could also fall victim to British disruption next week.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, raised hopes on Wednesday that Britain might "de-escalate" its disruption campaign, when he announced that the Government would not hold up an EU agreement with Slovenia at next week's meeting. His announcement followed a strong warning from Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, that unless Britain stop its blocking tactics there could be no "frame- work" for lifting the beef ban.

However, the evidence in Brussels yesterday suggested this concession was a "one off." Until now, Britain's blocking tactics have largely affected internal European policy-making. Next week, however, at the first meeting of EU foreign ministers since the crisis, Britain's disruption will affect Europe's relations with the rest of the world.

The British decision to make a concession over the EU-Slovenia agreement did not surprise European diplomats in Brussels yesterday. Britain has always supported strengthening EU ties with Slovenia as part of the long- term objective of enlarging the EU. Furthermore, by waiving the veto on the Slovenia question, Britain wins favour with the EU's Italian presidency, which wants to see the delayed deal finalised.

John Major yesterday gave the clearest indication yet he did not expect the EU to give a firm timetable for total lifting of the EU beef ban as ministers continued to talks up hopes of a deal with Britain's European partners before the Florence summit on 21 June. Mr Rifkind also continued to send out optimistic signals on the prospects for reaching a deal to end the beef crisis with the EU amid strong signs of Tory backbench opposition to any "sell out."

The Cabinet was told yesterday that 17 June - when EU foreign ministers gather in Rome for a pre-summit meeting - provided the best chance of securing a "framework" for lifting the EU beef ban.

The hopeful noises from Whitehall came despite a clear indication by President Jacques Chirac in talks with Mr Rifkind and Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, that he would prefer Britain to lift its policy of non- cooperation with EU business as a preliminary to talks on promising the ban. But he promised that the new dossier on Britain's plans to eliminate BSE would be examined in detail.

But there were private warnings from some Euro-sceptic backbenchers yesterday that they would be deeply disinclined to support a fudge.