The Commission decision could open the way for Britain to secure a face- saving agreement on step-by-step measures for a gradual lifting of the ban, at the two-day heads of government summit, starting on Friday.
However, the Commission has thrown down the gauntlet to Britain by stating that the campaign of blocking EU business must be halted in advance of an agreement on the framework at Florence. "If that assumption is not correct the whole thing collapses," said Claus Van de Pas, spokesman for Jacques Santer, the European Commission President.
John Major is now under enormous pressure to abandon his blocking tactics or risk losing the chance of even an outline framework deal at the Florence summit.
However, a Downing Street spokesman said last night: "We have made our position clear. The Prime Minister has said we would continue a policy of non-cooperation until the ban was lifted." The spokesman added: "The UK government still requires a framework for lifting the ban on British beef."
Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman Paul Tyler MP said: "Clearly the policy of non-cooperation has not only delayed agreement but escalated the number of cattle that are likely to be slaughtered.
"The shambles over the eradication programme here in Britain has understandably caused extra delay.
"It is not surprising that the Commission now makes it a condition for further progress that the British government must drop its ludicrous policy and negotiate in good faith. The moment of truth for Mr Major has arrived."
Until now, the Prime Minister has insisted that the non-cooperation policy, which has caused more than 70 EU decisions to be blocked, would remain in place until a framework deal had been accepted by all the heads of government.
He must now examine the Commission's framework proposals, which do not meet all Britain's demands, in order to decide if they are acceptable. If they are deemed to be workable, Mr Major will then have to decide whether to halt the non-cooperation in advance of a debate on the plan at Florence.
The Government also remains under strong pressure to extend its slaughter plan in order to win the confidence of other member states. Last night, it remained uncertain whether the Government would agree to European demands that it cull over 60,000 more cattle as part of its eradication programme.
The decision by the Commission to adopt a framework, setting out the phases for lifting the beef ban, may be greeted by the Government as a sign that the British blocking campaign has concentrated minds, producing, at least an outline for a solution.
The decision in Strasbourg came amid growing fears throughout the EU that the beef crisis could undermine the summit, which concludes the Italian presidency. The Government has warned that it would carry its disruption programme to Florence without new assurances on a programme for easing the ban.
However, Britain can be under no illusions about the strict terms which are being set by the EC and other member states for the phased lifting of the ban. Assuming the proposals do now go forward to the summit, the programme envisaged by the Commission offers no panacea.
The Government wanted the framework deal to represent a "bankable commitment" from member states that they would not oppose efforts to lift the ban when the stages are discussed in coming months.
The EC framework, however, contains no such commitment, insisting that each further decision to lift an element of the ban must be based on scientific evidence and agreed by a qualified majority of member states. Furthermore the Commission framework is understood to contain strict new "pre-conditions" stipulating new eradication guarantees for the slaughter programme.Reuse content