Europe in no mood to review beef ban

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British demands that Europe produce an action plan for the lifting of the beef ban look certain to be rejected, despite a Government claim yesterday that its non co-operation policy was "already biting".

In his Commons statement, John Major called on Europe to produce a "clear framework" under which the ban would be lifted otherwise the non co-operation would continue. However, European Commission officials made clear yesterday no such timetable or framework would be forthcoming.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday the new policy was "biting" and revealed that any minister seeking an exemption would have to take his case to Cabinet ministers for a collective decision.

He also went out of his way to attack Tony Blair despite the Labour leader's pledge "not to undermine it in the interests of the country provided it is measured and lawful and backed by a massive exercise in negotiation and diplomacy".

Mr Blair said in Rome that "these negotiations have been handled woefully and we would have not started from here. But the Government has embarked on a strategy in which the national interest is engaged and I am certainly not coming here to undermine that."

He said he wanted to assure the Italian government that "the scientific evidence points to the safety of British beef". He said of the British Government's strategy: "Talk of war on Europe is foolish and deeply unhelpful. But if this is, as Kenneth Clarke has described it, a way of exerting pressure to break an impasse by concentrating minds, that is a tactic that other countries have used."

Mr Rifkind said in London that if Mr Blair could not make up his mind on such a crucial issue it was "pretty pathetic". He said Mr Blair had "no alibis for not taking up a clear and unambiguous position".

In Brussels yesterday EU officials made it clear that if Britain chose to take the initiative by producing its own action plan it could form the basis of discussions. But they warned that the phased lifting of the ban would be linked to new British action, and not to dates plucked from the air.

Britain is being challenged to produce such a programme by 3 June when agriculture ministers meet again in Luxembourg to reconsider the lifting of the ban on semen, tallow and gelatine products.

Britain could help ease the crisis by producing an efficient programme under which meat could once again be exported if could be clearly certified as clear of BSE.

The Commission comments yesterday raise new questions about whether Britain's policy of disruption can do anything to ease the ban, and suggest that only positive new British initiatives can help.

Extreme doubts continued to be expressed in Brussels yesterday about whether the agriculture ministers will be any more willing to lift the ban on tallow, semen and gelatine than were the standing veterinary committee on Monday.

If no firm agreement is reached on 3 June, the proposal on the partial lifting of the ban will be referred by to the European Commission, who are obliged, under EU procedures, to implement it. Such a move by the Commission would not, however, lead to any further lifting of the ban without the agreed new British programme.

British officials in Brussels yesterday continued its policy of disrupting EU business by blocking a key agreement on how to respond efficiently to major disasters, such as oil spills or earthquakes.

"This is an act of petulance. Britain has shot itself in the foot by rejecting this proposal. Big accidents have international consequences and cross border co-operation is essential," said Ken Collins, the Labour chairman of the European Parliament's environment committee.