The French President, Jacques Chirac, who began a state visit to Britain yesterday, appeared ready to lend support to Britain but gave no sign to John Major that France would vote in favour of immediate relaxation.
Germany, meanwhile, indicated that it would seek to maintain the pressure on Britain, by calling for a decision to be stalled. German sources said last night that although Bonn is not in principle against easing the ban, it believes more time will be needed to study the public health implications.
A rejection of the call to ease the ban - or a stalling - would inflame anti-European sentiment in Britain and set the Government on a damaging new collision course with the European Union.
The Government faces an immediate backlash if today's meeting does not go Britain's way. Some Euro-sceptic Tories are threatening to vote with Labour in tomorrow night's Commons debate on agricultural policy. But right-wing ministers will see it as reinforcing their case for an urgent change in the law to prevent British courts enforcing European trade law in ways which will severely limit the scope for retaliatory measures against the beef ban.
The Foreign Office has gone out of its way to say that Britain will not adopt "illegal" retaliatory measures. Attempts to block meat imports from the EU would almost certainly be successfully challenged in the British courts as being in conflict with European law. But if the sceptics' proposal was accepted such law could not be enforced until it had been tested in the European Court of Justice.
The Government sees today's decision, which is to be taken at a meeting of the European Standing Veterinary Committee, as a crucial test of its ability to achieve progress towards a total lifting of the ban.
The committee's veterinary scientists, representing each member state, will consider a proposal for modifying the ban from the European Commission, which has already accepted that there is no scientific case for maintaining the ban on the three beef derivatives.
The proposal had by last night gone through several drafts, as attempts were made to tighten the conditions to gain the best chance of securing a vote in favour. Today's final draft is certain to recommend that Britain must set in place strict new production safeguards for the beef derivatives and should agree to rigorous monitoring procedures, which could take months to finalise.
If the proposal is pushed to a vote, a qualified majority of the 15 would be needed for the measure to pass. Germany alone would not be able to block it, but if France and one or more other countries joined Germany, then they could.
If the result is close, Britain could invoke a compromise procedure, calling for the proposal to be decided separately by the EU agriculture ministers.Reuse content