Britain flouting the rule of law, says Santer

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In a concerted effort to bring peace in the beef war, Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, yesterday condemned Britain for holding ordinary Brussels business "hostage" and appealed for calm on all sides.

"The Commission deplores the taking hostage of policy decisions which have no link with BSE. Such an attitude has no place in a community based on the rule of law," said Mr Santer, in a two-page statement on the crisis.

Mr Santer's stinging rebuke to Britain followed the confusion created in Brussels on Tuesday when the Government blocked 13 Brussels policy measures as part of its attempt to retaliate over the beef ban.

While attacking Britain, Mr Santer also sought to rise above the fray, urging all member states to help bring an early solution to the crisis by backing the Commission's proposals for a partial lifting of the beef ban. The proposals, rejected 10 days ago, are to be discussed again by agriculture ministers in Luxembourg on Monday.

The carefully worded attack raised questions about whether the Commission might consider taking Britain to the European Court of Justice for action contrary to "the rule of law". Article Five of the Treaty of Rome obliges all member states to "facilitate the achievement of the community's tasks" and "abstain from any measures which could jeopardize the objectives" of the treaty.

Mr Santer said yesterday that Britain's disruption was "preventing the functioning of institutions and blocking the progress towards integration".

The Commission has the power to bring infringement procedures against any member state breaking treaty law. Mr Santer's advisers stressed yesterday that no such action had yet been considered in response to the British sabotage campaign.

Article Five has never been invoked as the sole legal base for action against a member state, said a senior official. Nevertheless, the attack may be a warning shot to Britain, which has launched its own legal challenge in the European Court against the the legal basis of the entire beef ban, the proposal for which was drawn up by the Commission.

Questioning Britain's commitment to the "rule of law" was clearly designed to expose the hypocrisy of a member state, which above all others, proclaims its commitment to legal observance of the EU treaties. Mr Major has always insisted that his campaign of sabotage would not be "illegal".

The beef crisis has tested Mr Santer's leadership qualities more sharply than at any time since he became president 18 months ago. The Commission has tried to take a moderate line, backing measures for a partial lifting of the ban based on scientific evidence, and stressing that BSE is a community problem which also affects other member states.

Yesterday, Mr Santer made clear that the Commission will continue to back the partial lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen, working "actively with Britain" to normalise the trade in beef. Mr Santer, however, has received no thanks for his moderation. Britain has carried on regardless with its campaign of sabotage, while other member states - particularly Germany and Austria - have refused to compromise, blocking even a partial lifting of the ban.