Fears rise of EU vote to keep ban on beef products

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Fears that Britain could lose tomorrow's crucial Brussels vote on easing the beef ban, intensified yesterday when France indicated that it may join Germany by rejecting any early change.

The visit to London by Jacques Chirac, the French president, which begins today, will be dominated by the beef ban controversy. John Major is certain to press Mr Chirac to give a clear commitment to back Britain's case, citing British support for French nuclear tests last year.

Speaking to his European counterparts in Brussels yesterday Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, made a powerful plea for support, explaining the far-reaching political consequences for Britain and for British-EU relations if his counterpart did not back an easing of the ban. People in the United Kingdom would find rejection of the measure "impossible to understand", he said.

British officials made clear that the Government has considered a programme of retaliation, including disruption of European Union business, should Britain's European partners not make significant concessions on the ban. Mr Rifkind refused to comment on what the retaliatory measures might be.

He said reports that Britain might leave an "empty chair" at EU meetings, and even at the forthcoming EU summit in Florence, was "speculation". British threats, however, appeared not to impress other EU foreign ministers yesterday in Brussels. Several doubted whether Britain would achieve the majority it needs in tomorrow's vote.

Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister, refused to give any commitment of support for Britain, saying France's decision must await the view of scientific experts. British officials yesterday claimed that they were sure of support from France, only to be told that the Elysee was showing new hesitancy. Catherine Colonna, Mr Chirac's spokeswoman, warned in Paris last night against any "premature, over-hasty measure which could prove counter- productive if it does not restore consumer confidence".

The European Union's standing veterinary committee will decide tomorrow whether to lift the export ban on three beef products - gelatine, tallow and sperm - as proposed by the European Commission.

Although the measure would only represent a small easing of the ban, which is expected to remain in place for several months, it would be characterised by the Government as a political victory and would be viewed as an opportunity to defuse Euro-sceptics' hysteria.

Meanwhile, the Government's scheme to cull about 21,000 older cattle a week in an attempt to eradicate BSE and boost public confidence in British beef was branded a failure last night.

Launching a Commons debate on the scheme, Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman, said the crisis had devastated the beef industry and cost thousands of jobs.

He added that the scheme was "dreamt up, designed and it was built in Whitehall and anyone who suggests that it is an import from the Continent is either trying to distract attention, pass the buck or fight their own private battle".