EU vote may spell end of beef ban

Katherine Butler in Brussels sees first break for the farmers since BSE embargo began
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The Independent Online
THE lifting of the ban on British beef exports from Northern Ireland was approved yesterday by European Union vets in Brussels. By a majority vote they endorsed British plans to end the trade blockade in all UK areas covered by a computerised monitoring system for cattle.

It is the first breakthrough for farmers since the world-wide export ban was imposed by the European Commission in March 1996 in response to the spread of mad-cow disease. Labour MPs waved order papers when Tony Blair said the first step had been taken in lifting the ban.

It was seen as a important political victory for the Government, answering claims that ministers were failing the countryside with the march on London at the weekend.

Mr Blair used the announcement at Prime Minister's questions to turn the tables on William Hague, the Tory leader, who joined the march. "After years of Conservative failure there is at last some light at the end of the tunnel. I can announce the report from Brussels there has been a majority for the commission proposals."

The Prime Minister said the final decision would have to await the agriculture council chaired by Jack Cunningham, Minister of Agriculture. Europe's agriculture ministers meet on 16 March to consider the proposal. If a simple majority is in favour, the ban will be lifted. But when ministers vote a week on Monday, only a simple majority is required. If yesterday's line-up is repeated, the proposal will get through.

British officials in Brussels said yesterday's result was "a good omen". Germany, which has remained resolute in opposition to any easing of the embargo, was never likely to back the measure but now appears to have only minority support. "The thing we wanted to avoid was a simple majority against the proposal and that did not happen," said a British source.

Numbers backing Britain have swollen from the point some weeks ago when only Ireland and the Netherlands were openly declaring their support.

Northern Ireland farmers have been especially hard hit by the ban, despite having the lowest incidence of mad-cow disease. Under the scheme developed by the Government and backed by the European Commission, they could resume exports from animals aged 6 to 30 months, from herds free of the disease for at least eight years whose identity and movements are recorded on a computerised data base. Northern Ireland has had a computerised cattle- tracing system for a decade.

The rest of the UK will only get a fully fledged base to be combined with cattle passports from this month. It was set up to counter illegal trade in cattle hormone drugs operated as a sideline by IRA and loyalist paramilitaries. Under the Conservatives, the Northern Ireland export scheme was blocked under pressure from Scottish ministers, whose farmers fear they will permanently lose export markets to Northern Ireland if Ulster gets special treatment.