Major to meet EU chief in bid to resolve beef crisis

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John Major and Jacques Santer, President of the EU Commission, are to meet in Moscow tomorrow to try to resolve the beef crisis, with no end in sight to the world-wide ban which is crippling the British industry.

Mr Santer has agreed to meet the Prime Minister on the sidelines of a G7 summit on nuclear safety as Britain prepares a legal challenge to Brussels over the ban's legality.

As the Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, told MEPs there was no question of lifting the ban without more evidence of effective government action to eradicate "mad cow" disease, officials in Brussels insisted this action was legally sound. But Brussels sources have disclosed that the Commission's legal experts, who doubted the legal power to ban exports to Third World countries, were "bullied" into accepting the wide terms of the ban by senior officials. "The attitude was: act now, think about the legal consequences later."

When the ban was imposed, the Commission felt under pressure to respond to demands of member-states. But three weeks later, there is a realisation in Brussels that the Commission may have shot itself in the foot by handing Britain a cheap victory in the courts.

From the Brussels vantage-point, the British legal action looks designed to divert attention from the real problem. Yesterday Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, had still failed to offer a convincing eradication plan which might convince his EU partners to lift the ban.

Despite the package of anti-BSE measures announced by Mr Hogg on Tuesday, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, said in Strasbourg that Britain would have to go further to get the global trade boycott lifted. "We have heard what the British had to say yesterday. We are waiting for further measures." Mr Fischler said the next move was up to London.

Officials say the Commission expects Mr Hogg to come to Brussels next week with specific proposals for targeting productive herds with a record of BSE, in addition to the planned cull of older dairy animals and destruction of meat from animals older than 30 months.

The overall eradication plan would then be put to EU agriculture ministers scheduled to meet in Luxembourg on 30 April. Until then, they said, Mr Fischler's hand were tied. But there were indications last night that the Commission could agree to an early lifting of the ban for Northern Ireland and Scotland in recognition of the lower incidence of the disease there. The Commission says the legal action to lift the world-wide ban is irrelevant to the existence of the ban, as it might not be heard for months, if not years.

However, Whitehall sources yesterday said British lawyers are planning to call for an interim injunction to lift the ban and this action could be heard in the European Court within two months.

The legal challenge could become the most significant test of Commission powers in recent years and the Government will make every effort to make political capital from any weakness in its argument.

Tory MPs are expected to be among beef exporters at a rally next week at which the Government will be attacked for excluding exporters from the pounds 1bn compensation package announced on Tuesday.

The exporters will tell ministers the beef industry faces collapse if a rescue package is not urgently drawn up. They say that the Government has failed to address the collapse of the export industry, worth pounds 520m a year, which came to a standstill after the world-wide ban on British was imposed at the end of last month.

The International Meat Trade Association, representing the beef exporters, said thousands of jobs are under threat as they wait for news of compensation measures.