At a crucial meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Rome, the government came under concerted pressure to extend its cattle slaughter programme and end the campaign of disrupting EU business before any deal can be done. "It is not just a question of starting a war, it is also important (for the British) to terminate the war," said Jacques Santer, the European Commission President.
The foreign ministers rejected outright Britain's demand that the easing of the ban should begin with an end to the "worldwide" blockade on exports to third countries. They said the implementation of the BSE eradication programme should be a "pre-requisite" of any deal. Undermining Britain's hopes, Mr Santer declared that, even if Britain complied with the new demands, it would "not be legally binding". Lamberto Dini, the Italian foreign minister, admitted that "we may not have enough time" to secure the framework ahead of Florence, adding that the actual process of easing the ban would take "a year or so".
Malcolm Rifkind, the foreign secretary, declared just a week ago that agreement on Britain's draft framework for a phased lifting of the ban - including what he termed "bankable assurances" from member states - would be initialled at yesterday's Rome "conclave".
However, as British negotiators hurried back to the drawing board, the government again appeared to have badly miscalculated the readiness of its European partners to help Britain out of its political dilemma. The chances of avoiding conflict at Florence, without heavy new British concessions, appear slight.
Despite warnings on Britain's blocking action of EU business, the Prime Minister's office was defiant. "We shall ensure it is at the forefront of everybody's minds during the course of the discussions. Without the policy of non-cooperation, it is impossible to imagine we would have progressed this far in our discussions," said a senior government source.
An increased cull in the British herd would require Parliamentary approval and the future of Douglas Hogg, the agriculture minister, could be jeopardised if he returned to the Commons with a deal which was unacceptable to the farmers and Tory MPs. Mr Rifkind, in sombre mood, admitted yesterday: "The closer one approaches the moment of truth, inevitably one becomes more cautious."
The attempts to defuse the crisis move to Strasbourg today where, at a meeting of the European Commission, further efforts will be launched to put together a framework deal. However, it now seems certain that the government will first have to agree to slaughter up to 20,000 further cattle - as demanded by the EU's own vetinary experts - thereby enraging Euro-sceptics in Westminster.
Mr Rifkind clearly hoped yesterday that the foreign ministers would accept the proposal for ending the blockade to third countries as a first step in the framework deal. France opposed lifting the blockade on third country exports first - for "ethical reasons". This approach would tell third countries that they should eat British beef, even though it was still not being allowed into the EU itself, the French argued.
Britain's partners emphasised that the only framework they were even prepared to consider was one which set out the "process" for lifting the ban.
At each stage that a new element of the ban is lifted, a decision would have to be taken by the European Union's standing vetinary committee, and agreed by a qualified majority of member states. There could be "no quick fixes," Mr Santer said.
In his most apocalyptic statement yet, Mr Santer warned that all decisions should be based on clear scientific evidence."We are responsible to our children and to our children's children," he said. "This is too important to leave to politicians," said the Commission president.Reuse content