Britain's EU tactics hit Mid-East peace drive

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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. That became clear yesterday as Tory right-wingers warned ministers against retreating from their stance of non-cooperation in the EU without a firm pledge to end the beef ban.

Ministers fuelled Euro-sceptic concern over a possible retreat by continuing to send out optimistic signals of a deal in Europe as the latest poll showed that Britain's non- cooperation is failing to increase the Tories' popularity.

Farouk al-Shara, Syria's foreign minister, flies to Luxembourg on Tuesday, hoping 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, he will be told, at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, that due to the crisis over "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.

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

John Major yesterday gave the clearest indication yet that 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. He again rejected an invitation from Tony Blair, the Labour leader, to pledge that a timetable would be included in the "framework" for eventual lifting in the ban.

The dilemma for the Government is that while the hard-line stance of non-cooperation is not improving its poll fortunes, Euro-sceptic MPs are making it clear that they will not accept a fudge. That could be crucial if the Government seeks Commons approval for culling measures as part of the deal.

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.