British begin to block and stall EU at EU

Confusion in Brussels: But in London ministers insist they are not 'at war' as disruption starts
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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday set up a crisis Cabinet as the campaign to disrupt EU business in retaliation for the beef ban threatened - among a series of other policies - a fraud crackdownwhich the UK itself has long advocated.

The Government also told its European Union partners that Britain "will not be pushed around", as Mr Major established a "core group" of the Cabinet to mastermind its policy of non-co-operation to secure a lifting of the ban. But Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, rejected suggestions that Britain was "at war" with other EU countries.

David Bostock, the UK's deputy permanent representative to the EU, read out passages of the Prime Minister's statement at a meeting of senior officials. He was greeted by silence from the representatives of other member states.

Mr Rifkind said: "We didn't expect the Prime Minister's announcement to be welcomed by other countries ... but we are not going to be pushed around and that concentrates the mind wonderfully."

An early casualty could be EU measures providing for spot checks for fraud against the EU budget - a proposal long pursued by the Government. So far, however, British officials have made it clear they do not intend to discriminate by allowing through selective proposals favoured in London.

The developments came as Mr Major moved to set up a three-man "core group" of the Cabinet to oversee strategy. The committee consists of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture. Mr Rifkind said: "We have a serious disagreement with a number of countries. The proper way to resolve it is by dialogue and negotiation."

A Downing Street spokes-man said the "core group" was planning a series of ministerial visits to European capitals to press Britain's case.

A second committee, chaired by the public services minister, Roger Freeman, will be charged with overseeing "domestic action" - ensuring that the slaughter programme and anti-BSE measures are enforced. The new committees prompted sharply increasing speculation at Westminster that Mr Hogg is being sidelined.

As Conservative Euro-sceptics continued to celebrate what they perceived as a partial victory, Tory divisions remained on display, with Mr Clarke - whose support for the obstruction of EU business was critical - adopting a glaringly different tone from Tory Central Office.

He denied that the strategy of disruption was designed to present the Tory party in a jingoistic way in the run-up to the election. "We are not wrapping ourselves in the Union Jack. The Conservative Party is patriotic but it is not nationalist."

Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, said: "The British people are not going to fall for a Government that simply uses an issue of great concern to the British people and to the farming industry as a means either of uniting a fractious Conservative Party or as a cynical electoral ploy."

Attention will now focus on positions taken by Britain in a number of key Brussels meetings planned for the next few days, on foreign trade, civil protections and the single market. British interests are strongly affected by the EU's foreign-trade decisions, and the Government is expected to resist serious disruption in this field.

Despite the clear signs that a policy of non-co-operation is in force, British officials continued to attend meetings in Brussels, including talks in the inter-governmental conference, on long-term EU reform.

The European Commission, meanwhile, cleared a new hurdle on the way to easing the beef ban, by agreeing that its proposal for ending the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen would be re-submitted to a special council of agriculture ministers on 3 June. Several EU diplomats predicted yesterday that the proposal to ease the ban would be passed at the June meeting because of a more favourable voting procedure.

Commission officials, who called for calm, continued to play down Mr Major's threats, questioning whether Britain would ultimately take any significant disruptive measures. It was noted that the Government held back from orderingtrade sanctions, and had not carried out a threat to call an EU summit to discuss the crisis.

However, several of Britain's partners expressed new alarm at the Government's stance after examining the details of Mr Major's statement.