EU rebuke for Major over beef plans delay

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The Independent Online
John Major was given a humiliating rebuke by Jacques Santer, the European Union President, yesterday as the Prime Minister admitted to farmers that the beef debacle was the "biggest crisis" he had ever faced.

In a message to Mr Major, Mr Santer warned that Britain's delay in presenting plans to wipe out "mad-cow disease" was seriously damaging prospects for an early lifting of the EU ban.

European Commission officials were said to have been "amazed" yesterday when Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, arrived for talks with Franz Fischler, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, with no new plans for ending the crisis.

The National Farmers' Union, frustrated at the minister's failure to act, lodged an application for judicial review of the ban in the High Court, to be followed by a direct application to the European Court of Justice next week which will include a claim for damages likely to run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Mr Major and Mr Hogg described a meeting with NFU members at Downing Street yesterday as "constructive" but Mr Hogg admitted later that he did not expect an early lifting of the ban. Sources at the meeting said Mr Major was clearly disturbed by the effect on Britain's beef industry, describing it as his biggest crisis.

A spokeswoman for the NFU in Scotland said: "Our members cannot confirm the words precisely, but he definitely said something to that effect."

In his plea for action to Mr Major - delivered via Stephen Wall, Britain's permanent representative at the EU - Mr Santer warned that the cost of compensating British farmers could not be included in the EU's draft budget for 1997, due to be tabled next week, without British figures on numbers of animals to be slaughtered.

Britain has asked that 70 per cent of compensation payments be met by the EU farm budget. But, with five days to go before talks in Luxembourg aimed at ending the crisis, the Commission has still received no written details of how Britain intends to stamp out the disease.

Mr Santer emphasised to Mr Major that the Commission had no desire to prolong the ban but he warned that EU officials, who have the last word, would not begin to consider a relaxation, let alone a lifting of the boycott, in the absence of a fresh plan.

A spokesman for Mr Santer said: "We must see proposals for supplementary measures, but this is so complicated and so difficult that the sooner the better. Today rather than tomorrow."

Lawyers for the National Farmers' Union believe their challenges to the EU directives implementing the ban have a high chance of success. Their judicial review application is aimed at the Ministry of Agriculture and Customs and Excise, as agents of the EU in Britain.

Counsel for all parties are expected to ask a High Court judge to refer questions of law to the European Court. However, that route and the direct application could take months to be heard.