A furious Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, voted against the agreement at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, but failed to muster enough support to block it.
Mr Cook said the agreement with Canada and Russia on so-called humane trapping standards did not go far enough. He said Britain would try to overturn the deal during its presidency of the EU next year and, failing that, would try to blunt its impact with labelling rules to alert consumers.
The deal bans fur imports from animals caught in the cruellest steel- jawed traps, but gives Canada and Russia three years to meet agreed humane standards for padded leghold and so-called "drowning" traps.
British officials said a major loophole in the agreement will allow even steel jawed leghold traps to be used indefinitely if no alternatives are available to trappers. "This could have the effect of giving some legholds traps an international seal of approval."
A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said last night that it was "very angry and very disappointed" at the news. "Leg hold traps are banned in more than 60 countries world- wide because they're so cruel and yet the EU cannot ban their use or the import of products because of free trade. We're absolutely disgusted," she said. "Ministers shouldn't have given in to free trade agreements, but made a stand for animal welfare."
The RSPCA, however, pointed to the "uneasy relationship" between international trade rules and raising animal welfare standards. Such trade agreements, it says, have already caused the EU to weaken its four-year-old legislation designed to prohibit the use of animals in cosmetics tests.
But the EU trade commissioner, Sir Leon Brittain, welcomed the deal which aims to end years of antagonism between the EU on the one hand, and Russia and Canada - the world's biggest fur exporters - on the other. They would both be forced to phase out the cruellest trapping methods or face sanctions.
He said: "This will work better than any import ban because it tackles the problems at source-by improving the trap itself-rather than at Europe's borders when it is too late." He added that a fur import ban, which was supposed to have come into effect last year, but was overturned pending negotiations on humane standards, would be vulnerable to attack in the World Trade Organisation.
EU governments have been condemned repeatedly by the European Parliament and animal welfare groups for failing to implement the ban.
Britain has long been in conflict with Canada and the United States over its commitment to ban the import into Europe of furs from animals caught with steel-jawed leghold traps.Reuse content