The British Government's patience with the ban finally ran out yesterday when ministers signed up to the Prime Minister's high-risk decision to embark on one of the most dramatic confrontations within the community since General de Gaulle operated the "empty chair" policy of boycotting meetings a generation ago.
The Government yesterday responded to the resounding defeat of its call for easing of the beef ban by serving notice that it would use its veto to block every decision it can unless the required majority of member countries starts allowing the export of British beef and beef products.
In a statement to the Commons in the wake of European vets' decision to reject the European Commission's call to lift the ban on tallow, gelatine and bull semen, Mr Major also announced that the Government would begin an emergency action for rulings against the ban at the European Court of Justice.
If there is no change of heart over the next month by Britain's opponents and the European Court of Justice fails to rule in favour of Britain within the next month, the new policy is expected to block further progress in the Inter-Governmental Conference, and cause havoc at the European summit on 21-22 June. Mr Major told the Commons yesterday that without progress he would ensure the summit "would be dominated by the beef issue".
The immediate effect will be to block two EU directives which require unanimous support - a convention on insolvency which is aimed to enforce cross-border co-operation in dealing with bankrupt companies and, more crucially, the setting up of "Europol", the embryo European police force.
The measures are easily the most draconian in any dispute between Britain and her European partners since Margaret Thatcher went to the brink over the UK funds rebate in the run-up to the Fontainbleau summit in 1985; although ministers rejected a full-scale boycott of EU meetings.
Announcing the measures yesterday, Mr Major told the Commons: "This is not how I like to do business within Europe." He added: "But I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with this clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, common sense and Britain's national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiation. But if this is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us."
In a passing but withering reference to unnamed countries which he accused of a "breach of faith", the Prime Minister said that some countries had voted on Monday night to maintain the ban "despite prior assurances of support". Given that Germany, Austria and Greece have been consistent opponents, it looked as though Mr Major's remarks were directed at other opponents - with Spain and the Netherlands as the prime candidates. British officials expressed near-fury at Spain's denunciation yesterday of the British proposals and there were dark claims that the Dutch had been motivated by the desire to ensure their own semen industry flourished.
The strategy - which had been discussed in contingency form by ministers for several weeks - was finally confirmed after a frantic series of contacts between Mr Major and Cabinet ministers - starting with an 8am Strasbourg- Brussels-Downing Street conference call from the Prime Minister to Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and the embattled and much-criticised Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg. Mr Hogg was still under fire from Tory backbenchers yesterday.
There were strong hints by Downing Street that Mr Major was the prime mover in the strategy. But it was not finally decided until Mr Major had held a mid-morning meeting with the Chief Whip, Alastair Goodlad, and Kenneth Clarke, his strongly pro-European Chancellor.
The European Court of Justice action will concentrate on three aspects of the ban: the bar on tallow, gelatine and semen; the export of British beef to third countries outside the EU; and, once verification that all grass fed herds are BSE-free has been completed, the ban on beef from such specialist herds.
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