Major given just enough to claim victory

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The Independent Online
Yesterday, the European Union provided John Major with the cover he needed to claim victory in the beef war. It consists of an Italian presidency declaration, tagged on to the framework agreement on easing the beef ban, which will allow him to claim that European leaders have bowed to his demands for a speedy end to the bar on exports to countries outside Europe.

As the Florence summit began yesterday it became clear to all the EU members that the proposed framework was such a humiliating document for Britain that it would be impossible for Mr Major to sell it to his Euro-sceptic critics back home. The framework, drawn up by the European Commission, contained no guarantees on lifting the ban but rather extracted new concessions from Mr Major on slaughter and eradication. Furthermore, it contained no offer to allow Britain to export beef for third countries, which had been one of the Government's key demands.

Britain's attack on the ban has always focused most powerfully on the worldwide ban. Barring the entry of British beef to the EU was deemed to be "wholly wrong" and probably illegal; but barring the meat from entering third countrieswas deemed to be "wholly wrong" and "wholly illegal".

The Government argued that the Commission had no powers to enforce the third-country ban because internal-market and public-health rules apply only within the EU.

When Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney-General, launched the British legal challenge to the ban in the European Court of Justice last Thursday, he emphasised this point.

The Commission has always feared it was on weak legal grounds on the "worldwide" aspects of the ban but believed there was a danger that third countries might re-export their British beef to the EU.

In its framework document the Commission said that exports to third countries could only resume in "parallel" with the phased decisions to allow beef clear of bovine spongiform enceph-alopathy (BSE) back into the EU. France has argued that making an exception for beef destined to third countries was "unethical", as it suggested that they ought to eat beef that the EU would not consume.

The idea of a compromise on third countries came from Italy, which as current EU president wanted to broker a deal. The Italians proposed a formula which, despite appearances, was unlikely to increase Britain's hopes of sending beef to third countries one jot.

The three-line statement said that should a non-EU country wish to import British beef "for its own domestic market" its request "will be examined by the Commission ... within the overall framework after consulting the appropriate scientific and veterinary committees".

If, for example, South Africa wishes to apply to import British beef again, it can do so. However, the Commission will decide its response on the same basis that it decides the lifting of the ban on beef to the EU.

Furthermore, the decision on such an application would have to be agreed by a qualified majority vote in the EU's standing veterinary committee, which means that member states can reject all such applications.

But even this formula was rejected yesterday by Britain's 14 partners. Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, feared accusations from their own consumers of a political cave-in to Britain.

The result yesterday was that the Italian proposal was simply presented as a separate Italian "declaration", with virtually no force at all. The drawing of Mr Major's "fig leaf" was thus complete.