EU court threat to Britain's beef ban

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A fresh row with Brussels over BSE erupted yesterday with the disclosure that Britain is facing EU court action over its ban on the import of cattle over 30 months.

The row threatened to plunge John Major into renewed trouble with Euro- sceptic Tory MPs who called on the Prime Minister to defy the European Commission.

EU officials stressed that Britain is just one of a number of countries to be targeted under proceedings being prepared by the European agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler, amid mounting concern that the BSE crisis has triggered the virtual collapse of the single market. At least four governments, the Commission says, are exploiting the crisis to invoke illegal unilateral measures to protect their own markets and farmers.

Britain has been operating a ban on imports of meat from cattle over 30 months of age since it halted the sale of beef from British cattle over this age in April last as a health precaution. Bizarrely the ban applies only to to imports of meat produced in the EU and not to meat from outside the Union.

The leading Tory Euro-sceptic MP Bill Cash said: "We should reject their attempts to bring us to court. If we are prevented from exporting our meat on spurious grounds then we should also quite rightly prohibit the import of their beef into our country."

Mr Major expects renewed demands at the Tory party conference in Bournemouth from Euro-sceptics for a tougher line against the European institutions, including the European Court of Justice, in the run-up to the general election.

Downing Street sources last night denied rumours circulating in Brussels that Britain will not attend the European mini-summit called by Dublin on the weekend before the Tory party conference. The sources said Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, had made it clear Britain felt that it would not achieve anything, but there was no suggestion of a boycott.

The anger of the Euro-sceptics has been growing in recent days over the disclosure of moves in Europe which they believe will strike at the heart of Britain's powers, including the imposition by the European Commission of the 48-hour working time directive.

The group of former whipless Tory rebels confirmed yesterday they are planning to launch Conservatives Against a Federal Europe (Cafe) at the conference. Another key Euro-sceptic, Sir George Gardiner, and John Townend, chairman of the 92 Group of right-wing Tory MPs, are questioning Tory candidates about their stand on a single European currency.

Their survey of Tory candidates will raise doubts that the "ceasefire" in the Tory ranks over Europe can hold until after the general election.

However, Sir Leon Brittan, Britain's senior European Commissioner, yesterday warned Mr Major not to be swayed by the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party.