Authoritative sources within the Commission have told the Independent that there was no sound legal ground for the world-wide ban and it would most likely be reversed in court. The legal questions were dealt with hastily when the BSE crisis first broke and member states sought to respond to domestic pressure.
In taking the European Commission to the European Court of Justice, British lawyers plan to quote assurances that British beef is safe given by Jacques Santer, the Commission president, and Franz Fischler, the commissioner for agriculture, who admitted last week that he would be happy to eat British beef because there was no medical reason not to.
In a statement to the Commons yesterday, Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, said the ban was "unjust and unjustified". He admitted that substantive legal action could take months, but Britain will be seeking an interim order by the European Court for the immediate lifting of the ban, pending a further court hearing.
Mr Hogg also announced a package of measures to boost market confidence but ruled out a mass slaughter of cows although the Government was considering culling limited numbers of animals. The package includes a pounds 550m scheme to buy and destroy cattle aged over 30 months. Farmers are to receive up to pounds 500 for each dairy cow at the end of its productive life, known as cull cows. Mr Hogg also pledged a further pounds 110m for the slaughterhouse sector. The minister said latest reports showed beef consumption was now about 85 per cent of pre-crisis levels and the auction market had recovered to 60 per cent.
The admissions by European Commission officials that it lacked a legal basis for the world-wide ban on beef will fuel anger in Britain and raise new questions about the way the European Union responded to the BSE crisis. The National Farmers' Union said yesterday it would pursue a High Court action seeking a judicial review of the Government's refusal to grant export licences in compliance with the EU ban.
The Commission is confident it has clear powers to impose the ban on British beef within the EU, but not to extend it to third countries. However, Mr Fischler is certain to continue to insist in public that the Commission had the power to enforce a global ban too.
Downing Street said John Major had written to European leaders, including the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and President Jacques Chirac of France, to call for the ban to be lifted, and this week will lobby them for action at an international conference in Moscow.
The Prime Minister said the all-clear given by Mr Santer and Mr Fischler made the ban "inappropriate". The next meeting of agriculture ministers is not due until 29 April. British ministers may seek an emergency meeting of the agriculture council to lift the ban.
The package of help for farmers was welcomed by all sides of the Commons, but received a mixed reaction from the agriculture industry.
The Meat and Livestock Commission described it as a "comprehensive package of assistance throughout all sectors of the industry". The NFU said it was "an important first step towards resolving the many difficulties in the industry".
However, NFU president, Sir David Naish, said: "I regret there appears to be a limit to the maximum payment on cows to just under pounds 500. We and the rest of the meat trade will be working hard to promote our product and secure better returns."
Sir David, who is to press Mr Hogg for full details of the limited culling scheme he spoke about in the Commons, added: "We have adamantly opposed any such idea and although the minister may have ruled out any plans for a mass slaughter scheme, dairy farmers are not prepared to accept even a limited plan unless a strictly targeted and limited cull was to result in a far more proportional drop in BSE cases."
Welsh farmers last night gave only a guarded welcome to the compensation package, claiming better and longer term payments were needed.
The Country Landowners' Association, which represents the interests of 50,000 rural businesses, said the aid packages would help put the British beef industry back into its "rightful competitive position".
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