Britain defeated again in battle over beef ban

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The Independent Online
Britain failed again yesterday to persuade its European partners to ease the beef ban, as member states demanded more guarantees that action was being taken to eradicate infected beef.

However, sources in Brussels and London insisted that the mood in the European Union was moving in Britain's direction and last night the supermarket chain Asda gave the beleaguered British beef industry a boost by announcing it was to ban all foreign beef from its shelves.

The company's chief executive, Archie Norman, said: "British beef is the best and safest in the world, and our shoppers want to buy it. The industry should stop squabbling and get on with giving customers what they want."

A meeting of the European Union's standing veterinary committee in Brussels, postponed a decision on whether to relax the ban on gelatine, semen and tallow, until Monday. The delay was agreed after it became clear that, despite heavy British lobbying, a majority of member states were not prepared to endorse the modification without further reassurance from the Government.

Commission sources made clear last night that if Britain wants to be certain of achieving a decision in favour of easing the ban, it must table formal proposals for the selective slaughter of cattle.

Although Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, has proposed a selective slaughter programme for the 42,000 cattle deemed most at risk from BSE, the European Union has not yet been presented with the formal plans for such a cull.

Concern has been growing in Brussels about the failure of the Government to produce any firm evidence that an eradication programme is being instituted in a concerted and controlled way.

"Britain has got the message that it must show it is serious. Then things are likely to go their way," said one senior EU official last night.

There were signs that if Britain can give the necessary reassurances a majority of the member states would vote to lift the ban on Monday.

The main opponents yesterday of lifting the ban immediately were Germany, Austria and Greece. Germany has argued all along that Britain must do far more to reassure its partners that eradication measures are fully in force and being operated under strict controls.

After a hastily-arranged meeting of senior cabinet ministers at Downing Street, the Prime Minister's Office insisted the Brussels meeting represented "welcome progress" and that prospects for lifting the ban were "moving in the right direction".

Officials said that it was highly unlikely that contingency retaliatory measures - including the prospect of an "empty chair" policy of boycotting EU meetings - would be discussed at today's full meeting of the Cabinet.

Instead, government efforts would concentrate on diplomatic contacts with countries still backing German opposition to lifting of the ban.

The relatively upbeat response was agreed at talks between Mr Major, Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. Mr Hogg left the Commons - where a two-day debate on agricultural policy was under way - to attend.

Mr Rifkind emerged from the meeting to declare the Government was encouraged that the Commission was backing the UK and had now taken the view that there "should be pause for thought over the next few days".

He said there was a "good prospect" that the partial lifting of the ban would go ahead next week.

Ministers face the dilemma of keeping their own backbenchers in check without further alienating their European partners, whose support they vitally need if there is any hope for a progressive lifting of the EU beef ban in general, and the tallow, gelatine and bull semen ban in particular, at Monday's meeting of agriculture ministers.

Some ministerial hawks have already been pressing for a series of retaliatory measures to be worked up.

These include a possible far reaching change in the 1972 European Communities Act which would allow the British government to retaliate against imports of EU products to Britain without risking British court rulings that such action was in conflict with European law.

But Whitehall officials were emphatic that policy over the next few days would concentrate on winning round the countries whose reservations stopped the European Commission putting the issue to the vote yesterday.