EU rejects timetable for lifting beef ban

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Demands for a framework to settle the beef crisis were rejected by Britain's European partners yesterday, further fuelling the conflict just four days ahead of the Florence summit.

At a crucial meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Rome, the Government came under concerted pressure to extend its slaughter programme and end the campaign of disrupting EU business before any deal can be done. "It is not just a question of starting a war, it is also important [for the British] to terminate the war," said Jacques Santer, the European Commission President.

The ministers rejected outright Britain's demand that the easing of the ban should begin with an end to the "worldwide" blockade on exports to third countries, and it now seems certain that the Government will have to agree to slaughter up to 20,000 further cattle. They said the implementation of the eradication programme should be a "pre-requisite" of any deal.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, declared just a week ago that agreement on Britain's draft framework for a phased lifting of the ban - including what he termed "bankable assurances" from member states - would be initialled at yesterday's Rome "conclave".

However, as British negotiators hurried back to the drawing board, the Government again appeared to have badly miscalculated the readiness of its European partners to help, and the chances of avoiding conflict at Florence, without new concessions, appear slight.

Despite warnings on Britain's blocking action of EU business, the Prime Minister's office was defiant. "We shall ensure it is at the forefront of everybody's minds during the course of the discussions. Without the policy of non-cooperation, it is impossible to imagine we would have progressed this far in our discussions," said a senior source.

An increased cull of the British herd would require parliamentary approval and the future of Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, could be jeopardised if he returns with a deal unacceptable to farmers and Tory MPs.

The attempts to defuse the crisis move to Strasbourg today where, at a meeting of the European Commission, further efforts will be launched to put together a framework deal.

EU ministers have emphasised that the only framework they are even prepared to consider is one which sets out the "process" for lifting the ban.

Mr Santer warned: "We are responsible to our children and to our children's children. This is too important to leave to politicians."