Britain gives ground in beef battle

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The Government last night made its first significant concession in the confrontation with the EU over beef after Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, warned the beef ban would stay in force until Britain ends its sabotage of European business.

While making it clear that the policy would continue despite the threat, the Government decided not not to block an "association" agreement between the EU and Slovenia. In response, the Italian Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, announced the Italian EU Presidency would work to secure a "framework" before the Florence summit on June 21.

The sudden escalation in the brinkmanship between the Government and the Commission - on whose support Britain had originally been counting in the beef crisis - had appeared to leave the two sides in the most serious stand-off yet, with no resolution in sight.

After promising the Commission would fulfil its commitment to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen, Mr Santer said the Commission would not come to Britain's aid again. He said the Government would receive no framework for ending the rest of the ban while its "absurd" boycott tactics continued. He described the effects of the British tactics as "extremely grave".

"It is the duty of the Commission to launch an appeal to the British authorities to give up this policy and let the European institutions do their work," said. "I think that the British must give up this non- cooperation, this blocking, this stonewalling. It does not create the climate we need if we want to proceed to a realistic framework for lifting the ban." It was far from certain last night that the Italian initiative would bear fruit. Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, said after meeting Mr Dini in Rome that there was a still "very hard work ahead." But he claimed that Mr Dini's commitment to work with the European Commission for a framework "could be a turning point in the crisis." The British exemption - cleared in advance by senior ministers - is particularly pleasing for the Italians, who have long pursued an agreement with Slovenia. Neverthless, the difficulties for Britain were underlined when Mr Santer confirmed yesterday that several member states had refused to back the easing of the derivatives ban on Monday as a direct result of the blocking campaign. Mr Santer's statement followed an angry meeting of the full Commission, when several commissioners voiced fury at the way Britain has blocked their policies this week, and demanded that even the easing of the derivatives ban be shelved until Britainende d its disruption. The Commission has been particularly angered by Britain's sabotage campaign, because it was the Commission which called for European "solidarity" with Britain, and backed the easing of the derivatives ban - only to find Britain more com bative than ever. Yesterday, Mr Santer said: "Solidarity is a two-way street. Fairness is a British concept." One senior ex-minister said the move was not unexpected and that there was every chance that negotiations would now "go underground", with a deal still on the cards for the Florence summit in two weeks. But another pro-European minister expressed concern at the way in which the issue was being exploited by Euro-sceptics, saying: "John Major has embarked on a very high-risk strategy." One hardline Euro-sceptic, described Mr Santer's statement as "wonderf ul news" because it would foment opposition to the EU. Tristan Garel-Jones, page 20 Industry anger, page 23