Their action in voting to postpone the ban, which effectively kills it, has angered the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer. It has also aroused fury among animal welfare groups across the Continent and set Sir Leon Brittan, vice-president of the European Commission and also the Trade Com- missioner, on a collision course with the European Parliament.
Leghold traps work by clamping on to an animal's leg, biting deep into the flesh, and restraining it until the trapper arrives. Animals, including beaver, otter and lynx, are frequently left in the traps for several days and often resort to gnawing off their own limbs to escape.
The European Union agreed in 1991 to ban the leghold across Europe from this year and to ban fur imports from countries still using them. Countries could still export fur to the EU, provided they banned the leghold or adopted "internationally agreed humane trapping standards". The ban on fur imports was subsequently postponed until 1 January next year.
The leghold traps are widely used to capture beaver and mink in North America, and the trappers have fought a long and bitter battle to continue using them. The Canadian and US governments have also put the EU under intense diplomatic pressure over the planned ban. Canada has even begun to take action through the World Trade Organisation in a bid to retain the traps.
On Friday, Europe's trade officials caved in to the pressure and voted 14-1 to postpone, and therefore kill, the ban. Only Britain voted to keep it.
Mr Gummer was said to be furious with the officials' actions. He said: "We need to have an international system in which we have proper concern for the welfare of animals, and leghold traps are something that we clearly do not want within that system."
Those wishing to retain the ban are now pinning their hopes on a meeting of the College of Commissioners, a round-table meeting of commissioners, each responsible for the various policy areas, next Wednesday. Although the powerful College of Commissioners will effectively make the final decision, it generally rubber-stamps the decisions of officials, who meet beforehand. The European Parliament appears certain to regard the ban as an environmental issue while trade officials insist it is a commercial one. As a result, the stage is set for confrontation between Sir Leon and MEPs.
Sir Leon's representatives have been locked in negotiations with Canadian and American officials for two months to try to hammer out a set of trap standards that would be classified as "humane" by the EU, but still acceptable to the North Americans.Reuse content