Agriculture minister Jack Cunningham is looking to a December meeting of the European Union's top veterinary committee to lift the export ban on Northern Irish beef, 20 months after exports of all British beef were prohibited by the EU.
In Brussels, the omens do not look good, according to agriculture officials from the 15 EU governments and British meat industry lobbyists. Some governments, notably Germany and Austria, are implacably opposed to an early lifting of the ban.
The effects of the crisis have gone well beyond simple damage to meat companies. "You're talking about pounds 3bn overall, including lost export revenue, support for farmers and the disposal of cattle," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food.
Despite the negative signals coming from many of its EU partners, the UK is still hoping that proposals on Northern Ireland will be ready in time for the meeting of the EU's veterinary committee, either on 2 or 16 December. Unfortunately for the UK, the 15 chief veterinary officers who sit on the committee are renowned for following their respective governments' party line.
Meat industry officials believe as many as five or six countries are likely to vote against allowing trade to restart from Northern Ireland, easily enough to block the move.
"There's no reason why Northern Ireland shouldn't be opened up immediately. Our beef is by far the safest beef in Europe. But even if we do get the go-ahead, it won't be that easy to regain our markets," said a spokesman for Anglo Beef Processors.
The company exported pounds 50m worth of beef annually before the ban, and owns 25 per cent of Northern Irish processing capacity.
Still, there are those in the British meat industry who feel it would be no bad thing if Europe decided not to give even a small part of the UK the go-ahead. "If we lifted the ban right now, we would struggle to recover our export markets," said Peter Scott, general-secretary of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers of England and Wales. "I wouldn't mind if the ban wasn't relaxed at this stage. It is too early. The confidence just isn't there yet."
The impact of the ban has been disastrous. In 1995, the last full year of trade before it took effect, the UK exported 242,000 tonnes of beef worth pounds 642m.
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