Farm chief raises stakes in beef dispute

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Franz Fischler, the European Agriculture Commissioner, has ruled out any chance that Britain might secure a timetable for the lifting of the beef ban, and has proposed tough new demands for a framework to ease the crisis.

In an interview with the Independent he also made clear there can be no deal on how to lift the ban until Britain has halted its blocking tactics in Brussels. "Nobody in Europe can speak about a timetable at this stage ... if the British present a framework as a kind of blank cheque, nobody will sign it."

Britain's blocking policy had made it much harder for the EU to make concessions on lifting the ban, he insisted. "Now, if we want to make a concession, people think we are doing it for political reasons because of pressure from Britain. They don't believe we are doing it because of the scientific evidence. This makes it harder to maintain consumer confidence and harder to ease the ban."

Mr Fischler's comments are the latest sign that Britain's tactics in Brussels are not helping win allies over the crisis.

At the weekend, Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission, said member-states were reaching "the limit of our possible tolerance" and that Britain could face years of diplomatic isolation.

Mr Fischler said Britain must meet three demands before any agreement can be signed:

r The Government must accept stringent EU voting procedures each time another element of the ban is to be lifted. A proposal to ease a new part of the ban would first be made by the European Commission on the basis of scientific evidence. This proposal would then be voted on by qualified majority, in the EU's standing veterinary committee. A further qualified majority vote would then be needed among EU agriculture ministers. It was this process which applied during the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen, and which the Government had hoped it could bypass in future.

r Before the framework can be signed, Britain must have implemented, to the satisfaction of the Commission, its full eradication programme. In particular, the Commission is insisting all elements of the slaughter policy are in place and fully monitored and that Britain's animal identification system is working.

r The Government must also provide a more precise definition of the different phases it proposes for lifting the ban. Britain has opened negotiations suggested a 10-step process. Mr Fischler said Britain had provided only "headline" proposals, with no detail.

He insisted the ball was in Britain's court but did not rule out achieving the framework before the Florence summit, which begins in two weeks. But he stressed: "This depends on Britain providing the necessary new elements. Only then will we be able to make process towards normalisation. We will see if the British come up with some good ideas."

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, will risk enraging Britain's EU partners further by blocking a number of initiatives when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg today. He will block dialogue with Syria, considered crucial for the Middle East peace process after the right-wing Likud party won power in Israel.

A deal intended to mend fences with Canada after last year's fish war and a decision releasing pounds 2.4m for elections in Bosnia will also fall victim to the British disruption policy.

The "beef war" continues to inflame Conservative wounds on Europe. Today Sir James Goldsmith, the anti-EU billionaire, is to attend a meeting to debate Britain's EU membership with Tory MPs including Alan Duncan, an aide to Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman.

r Britain is proposing draconian limits on the number of days fishermen can put to sea rather than implement the cuts to the British fleet sought by the European Commission to protect stocks.

The plan is expected to meet resistance from every member-state.