Hopes of beef reprieve dashed

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The Independent Online
Britain was today gearing up for an escalating confrontation with its European partners after efforts to ease the beef ban were resoundingly defeated in Brussels last night.

In a meeting of the European Union's standing veterinary committee, seven countries, led by Germany, voted against a proposal from the European Commission to lift the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. The defeat was by far the most serious yet in Britain's increasingly desperate efforts to lift the ban and raises serious questions about the Government's ability to influence its partners through normal negotiation procedures.

The defeat is certain to outrage the Government, inflaming anti-European sentiment on the Conservative back benches. Demands for retaliation against the EU are certain to intensify, and the Government will come under strong pressure to set in place a series of possible retaliatory measures - including non co-operation and the disruption of EU business. It now seems inevitable that the crisis in British-EU relations caused by the beef ban will overshadow all European negotiations and could produce serious disruption at the EU summit in Florence.

A Ministry of Agriculture spokesman said: "We are disappointed and will continue to fight for the lifting of this unjust ban."

The defeat will be exploited by angry Tory backbenchers who had been persuaded last week to modify their complaints after ministerial reassurances that there were good prospects that the partial lifting of the ban would go ahead yesterday. A typical response came swiftly from Graham Riddick who urged the Government to halt further transfer payments to the EU. "Playing the game like English gentlemen has failed. It is time we took the gloves off," he said. "It is an appalling state of affairs and humiliating to see British ministers and British officials going cap in hand to Brussels in a vain attempt to get the ban lifted."

Mr Major, who faces Prime Minister's Question Time today, is likely to have to confront Tory back-bench calls for reciprocal trade sanctions against the UK's partners - and possibly the resignation of Douglas Hogg, Minister of State for Agriculture.And senior ministers, like the leading Cabinet Euro-sceptic Michael Howard, are likely to revive calls for a raft of retaliatory measures.

Labour's agriculture spokesman, Gavin Strang, said: "This is yet another setback and very disappointing that even this modest alleviation of the ban has not been agreed."

Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, said he was "disappointed" by the result, and added that the Commission proposal had been formulated on the basis of scientific evidence.

Britain had hoped that its latest BSE eradication proposals would persuade other member states that the time had come to relax the ban. However, as negotiations stretched into the night it became clear that several key countries were determined to keep the pressure on Britain, dismissing the proposals as "inadequate".

From the beginning of the talks, Germany and Austria rejected any moves to ease the ban. They were joined as the negotiations intensified by Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Votes against by these seven countries were sufficient to produce the qualified majority needed to isolate Britain. The remaining eight countries, including France, voted in favour of easing the ban.