Europeans savage Britain

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The Independent Online
"A huge letting of off steam," was how one official described it. "A roasting," said another. "I have never seen anything like it. They were savaged," said a third, who had watched the European counter-attack on British ministers at Luxembourg yesterday.

It was a day of remarkable and unusually strong language. "Blackmail," declared other EU ministers, wagging fingers at Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary. "Paralysis of the union," said others. "Incomprehensible . . . Unacceptable." The temperature rose, and Mr Rifkind sat stony-faced and silent as they suggested that Britain was behaving illegally and that the "break-up" of the Union itself was nigh.

Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, warned Britain at the weekend that the moment of truth in the beef war was coming. Yesterday it seemed that the moment had arrived.

The day's proceedings had begun quietly enough. Europe's foreign ministers took their seats in the Luxembourg council room ready for what has become a familiar ritual: the reading of the British "reserve", a prelude to the announcement of further vetoes.

"I have to announce that the British government, for reasons well known to you all, is not in a position to approve points 11-25 on the agenda," began Stephen Wall, the UK's representative to the European Union. To date a total of 56 European policy decisions had been blocked. Now 16 more decisions were to be shelved, this time affecting EU relations with the rest of the world.

It was the burly Dutch foreign minister, Hans van Mierlo, who led the way. "The British say they are suffering," he exclaimed. "But we are all suffering." There followed a ferocious and unprecedented attack by the 14 ministers.

Werner Hoyer, the German minister for Europe, said he feared for the whole future of European development. The great European projects, spearheaded by Germany - monetary union, enlargement - were threatened, he warned. "The British policy is a severe blow to European integration."

How could Britain justify a decision to block European Union aid to Russia, just ahead of the Russian elections? asked other ministers. What was the purpose of halting dialogue with Syria? And what of the decision to block an EU statement criticising human rights in East Timor? This was "absurd", declared Portugal and Austria.

They scorned Mr Rifkind's "concessions". Britain had decided not to block a new association agreement with Slovenia and had backed away from blocking money for the election in Bosnia. But what right did Britain have to set the EU's agenda? "You cannot pick and chose," said Mr Van Mierlo.

For everyone in Luxembourg yesterday it was clear that the stakes in the beef war had now become intolerably high. Mr Rifkind, clearly shaken by the vitriol, tried to counter the attacks with some signs of conciliation. "The UK takes no pleasure in this," he insisted. "We share your strong desire to conclude this."

Yet as the dust settled last night there was no sign of a ceasefire. Mr Rifkind made clear that the blocking would continue until a framework for lifting the ban was in place. And the others made clear that that that would not happen until Britain had decided, as Mr Santer put it, "to play fair".

EU in crisis, pages 6 and 7