Oh, what a lovely war!

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There they go, there they go, there they go ... Over the Channel, and through the tunnel, pour the massed battalions of the British Euro- sceptic Expeditionary Force (BEEF). Over the coming weeks, they will fight them in the committee rooms, in the council chambers, in the summits, in the newspaper columns. If the beef ban should last for a thousand years, they will never surrender. If they're forced into another Dunkirk withdrawal from Europe, they would not care.

But hold on a moment, the derided Euro-pacifist cries: is not this a very silly war?

For Britain is fighting, in effect, on the side of Euro-federalism and Big Brother Europe against legitimate national anxieties. We are bombarding our allies as well as our opponents. We are within an inch or two of achieving our first objective peacefully. We are deploying weapons which, if they damage anything at all, damage ourselves as much as they damage the enemy.

The Mad Cow War of 1996 will be portrayed as the usual thing: Britain versus a threatening and monolithic Europe. But this time it is different. Consider the following remarkable statement by the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, speaking to Sky Television yesterday: "The European Commission has said that [the easing of the beef ban] is the right thing to do. A small group of countries is blocking all progress for their own internal political reasons."

How shocking, Mr Rifkind implies, and how short-sighted, that a group of countries should put their own national interests and the concerns of their public before the august view of the European Commission ...

So much, then, for the views of the German, Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese people. They should they bow to the will of Brussels and the Euro-majority. If the situation were reversed, and the BSE epidemic had occurred in, say, France, a child could compose the likely Daily Mail splash headline. "EU orders Britons to eat killer meat!"

There are two reasons why this wholly unnecessary crisis may cause far more damage to Britain's relations with Europe than any of Mrs Thatcher's protracted constitutional and budgetary crusades of the1980s - which, arguably, were necessary.

First, the dispute is driven on the British side by some genuine concern for fair play and anxiety about the livelihoods of British beef farmers. We do have a case, although the Government has presented it badly. But the real long-term interest of our farmers is to restore the reputation of British beef. This cannot be done by shouting: "Eat our beef or else".

The whole affair has been hijacked by Euro-hysteria. It has been turbo- charged into a crisis by the opportunism of a minority of Conservative politicians and a majority of Euro-bashing British newspapers.

Secondly, on the European side, the dispute is fuelled not by devious political machinations but by the life-and-death fears, however misplaced, of real people. Mad cows are no abstract Euro-squabble. BSE is one of those rare EU issues which people know about and care passionately about.

In terms of strict veterinary science and European law, the British government and the European Commission may well be right. There is no clear scientific reason not to eat British beef. EU countries should certainly ease the export ban to allow trade in gelatin, tallow, semen and, possibly, organically reared beef.

But a large section of consumer opinion on the continent believes that eating British beef - eating any beef - might (just might) rot the brains of their children and condemn them to a horrible early death.

And who, originally, said so? The British government and the British press.

The result is demonstrated by beef sales, which have fallen in Germany by 45 per cent, in France by 25 per cent, in Spain by 40 per cent, in Italy by 60 per cent. In Britain, sales have returned to 94 per cent of last year's levels.

Given the absence of British beef from the continental market, and the rarity of BSE on the continent, the Euro-consumers' fears are irrational. But they exist. Britain says Germany and the others should be doing more to educate their public. They say we should do more to convince consumers that we are eradicating BSE.

This is, then, a typical Grade One Euro-squabble in which the technical and political arguments have become so hopelessly intertwined that any solution is too technical for the politicians and too political for the technocrats.

Yet given minimal goodwill, and a little time, there would have been a compromise. Why? Because that is what Brussels is good at.

It may still happen. But meanwhile, the British policy of non-co-operation will not paralyse Europe. A large part of normal EU business can be conducted by majority vote. No one was expecting early progress in the the rolling Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) on EU reform. Mr Major can make a nuisance of himself at the Florence summit next month but the 14 will probably draw up their own declaration, leaving the British Prime Minister as a footnote.

The truth is that we can draw a little blood, but some will be our own. One of the early targets for British obstruction is an obscure protocol on solvency in EU company law. This is something we can block. Triumph! Unfortunately, it is also something that the Government approves of, and British industry has long wanted.

We are facing a prolonged stalemate. We will soon have demands for more aggressive and probably illegal anti-EU offensives. The main effect will be to inflame anti-European feeling ahead of the election. What that will do to the Poor Bloody Infantry of British commerce remains to be seen. Today, General Major is a hero. But it is all slightly reminiscent of Siegfried Sassoon's poem: ''He's a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack... But he did for them both with his plan of attack.''

Blocking the EU, page 2

Science and politics, page 20