Europe sends warning shot to beleaguered UK

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The Independent Online
The phoney war is over. Britain's campaign of non- cooperation with the European Union over the beef export ban is entering a live-bullets phase. The next 11 days up to the EU summit in Florence on 21-22 June are fraught with danger for the Prime Minister and for Britain's place in the EU.

The warnings given at the weekend by the European Commission President, Jacques Santer, and, by the European Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, in his interview with the Independent, represent a serious escalation of the crisis.

Why? For two reasons. Firstly, we have lost the sympathy and support of the European Commission, which has been playing on our side until now.

Secondly, the comments made in Brussels suggest that there is a growing determination on the Continent to deny the Prime Minister any political benefit from the dispute.

At this stage in any Euro- crisis, the EU is politically programmed to seek a compromise. By the nature of any 15-nation institution, a compromise is something which all sides can take home and call a victory. In John Major's case, he desperately needs either a real victory (which seems unlikely) or something which he can convince the Tory right-wing and the Euro-sceptic British press amounts to a victory.

The clear message from the Commission over the weekend is that the rest of Europe is determined to deny Britain even the semblance of a victory.

Both Mr Santer and Mr Fischler make it clear that no further progress can be made towards lifting the beef ban unless Britain abandons its blocking tactics. Mr Fischler also warns that there will be no easy agreement on step-by-step proposals for lifting the ban and certainly no specific timetable.

Last week Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, claimed a first step towards victory when the Italian government - now holding the EU presidency - agreed to propose a framework for the gradual lifting of the beef ban. The implication was that the Government hoped to wrap up a vague outline agreement and declare victory before or during the Florence summit. This would have been a classic EU exit from a political swamp of this kind.

But the statements over the weekend suggest that the Commission, and other governments, have closed ranks and will try to force the Government to back down publicly. This may be politically impossible for Mr Major. The prospect, two weeks into the beef war, is for a prolonged stand-off, or an escalation by the Government, with uncertain consequences for Britain's future in Europe.