Major ups the stakes in drive to block Brussels business

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Downing Street last night raised the stakes over the threat to carry on disruption to the Florence summit at the end of the month after European Union veterinary surgeons demanded the number of British cattle to be culled be increased from 80,000 to100,000.

Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, yesterday revised the British framework plan for lifting the beef ban in a step-by-step approach, in the hope of winning approval before the EU summit. But the Prime Minister's office said it remained cautious about the chances of an agreement before the summit. The policy of non-co-operation would continue until the framework had been agreed.

It would be raised "vigorously" by the Prime Minister at Florence if the framework had not been agreed, a government source said. The threat to disrupt the summit will dismay the Italian presidency of the EU, which has been helpful. British sources said the European Commission was helping in the negotiations for the framework deal.

Britain has strongly resisted increasing the cull. But many EU nations are deeply sceptical that Britain is doing enough to wipe out the disease and restore consumer trust in beef.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said Britain was winning the battle over beef. "There is now a serious prospect of an agreement being realised ... next week," he told the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Despite his optimism, he received a gentle roasting from Conservative and Labour committee members. Two veteran Tories, Michael Jopling and Sir Jim Lester, said the Government campaign of non-co-operation could cause more problems than it solved.

Mr Rifkind accepted it was a "high-risk strategy" but said the Government felt it had no choice. "There is now a serious effort being made by the [European] Commission and [Italian] residency [of the EU] to deliver an agreement in a short period of time."

This was not the case 10 days ago, he said.

The same message was delivered in the Commons chamber when Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign- affairs spokesman, asked what justification there could be for non-co-operation. "It aggravates our European partners and so far has produced nothing," he said. "The UK would not negotiate under duress, why do we expect our European partners to do so?"

The justification lay in Tuesday's remark by Jacques Santer, the EC president, that he was "optimistic" that there could be a framework next week for the lifting, "phase by phase", of the ban, according to the Foreign Secretary.

None the less his confidence seemed to fly in the face of statements by other EU governments. Mr Rifkind rejected suggestions that other countries were calling on Britain to abandon its blocking policy before any progress could be made on lifting the EU ban on UK beef exports. "This had seemed to be the case at one point," Mr Rifkind said but "no longer".

His reassurances appeared to ignore a joint statement by the German, Spanish, Luxembourg, Belgian and Irish leaders on Tuesday and proposals put forward by the Dutch on Monday. The statement by the five Christian Democrat leaders called for an "immediate end" to Britain's campaign.

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