Parents confused, Brussels baffled

Click to follow
Events overwhelmed the Government yesterday as it struggled to crisis-manage its way through the beef and baby milk dilemmas. In Brussels, British ministers blocked initiatives they had badly wanted to see go through. Why? Because they were trying to force a quick end to the beef ban. But immediately after using his veto, one minister suggested the ban could last ''four, five or six years''. The confusion was mirrored in London, where an attempt to stifle public fears about baby milk by refusing requests for information merely made the situation worse. These were not Whitehall's finest hours.

British ministers went to Brussels yesterday to carry through John Major's policy of non- co-operation with European partners and found themselves resolutely applying the veto to measures for which they had campaigned.

The ironies implicit in this British retaliation for the beef ban could not have been lost on Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Services, and Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, as they blocked proposals on everything from co-ordinating aid to the Third World to free trade with Mexico. The war in Europe had started.

But by midday, the ministers were beating a humiliating retreat. Mr Freeman emerged to say that victory was nowhere in sight. Britain could be bogged down in the quagmire of the beef war for "four, five or six years", he declared.

His disruptive tactics would have only limited effect, he conceded. Furthermore, Mr Freeman was forced to admit that he had shot himself in the foot by blocking decisions for which Britain has campaigned for years. Simplifying European Union legislation has long been a British objective, but yesterday Mr Freeman sacrificed proposals to cut back on red tape for the sake of the battle for beef.

Britain is not having a glorious war - that much is clear from the Brussels front line. Yesterday the aims appeared confused, the strategy ill- advised, and the troops demoralised and badly-led.

For instance, Mr Freeman's comments appear to contradict the Government's previous statements, that the total ban can be lifted within weeks, or as soon as agreement is reached on a "framework" programme for the eradication of BSE from the national herd. Mr Major has indicated a framework should be agreed before the Florence summit, in three weeks' time.

But asked yesterday whether the eradication of BSE would take months or years, Mr Freeman replied: "It is clearly not months. Because of the gestation period it could be in the order of four, five or six years. It is not possible to forecast when the UK is entirely BSE-free."

Then, to further compound the confusion, Mr Freeman later issued a statement - unusually through 10 Downing Street - saying: "My comments this morning seem to have been misinterpreted in some quarters. When I pointed out that the gestation period for BSE can be several years, I was not in any way suggesting that the ban could run that long."

Yesterday's campaign of disruption at the Council of Ministers focused on two council meetings: development (which deals largely with aid to poor countries) and the internal market (which aims to implement a border- free Europe).

On the agendas of both meetings were proposals which Britain has previously supported. For months, Whitehall officials and the UK repres- entatives in Brussels have toiled to finalise details and hammer out compromises, ready for ministers to agree. But where unanimity was required, ministers had been told to block.

Lady Chalker blocked a long- standing plan which would paved the way for liberalising trade between the EU and Mexico. The proposal had been, to date, fully backed by the British Government.

She also blocked measures intended to target European aid to Third World countries more effectively and efficiently. Efforts to channel funds directly to victims of Aids could be delayed, as will studies on the effects of aid-spending on migration and the environment.

Mr Freeman, meanwhile, blocked long-awaited moves aimed at simplifying EU legislation. On yesterday's agenda for the so-called "slims" proposal, was a plan to bring about the mutual recognition of diplomas, which would make it easier for job-seekers to take work in other member states. The plan would also have simplified import and export forms. A task-force of officials at the Department of Trade and Industry has been working on the proposals since December. Yesterday, however, the proposals were shelved.

Ministers and officials attempted to rebut criticism that they were blocking measures which were in Britain's interests. But their defence only raised further questions about the wisdom of the strategy.

Mr Freeman said that although he had blocked the measures in the internal market council, these would not have any effect, as the work would go on. He insisted that while some of the shelved proposals would have been in Britain's interests, "it is in the interests of Britain that we make progress on lifting the ban on British beef".

Ministers, it seems, could be conscripted to serve on the Brussels battlefront for some time to come.

Through the headphones came 'non', 'nein', 'oxxi', 'nej', 'nao'. . .

Britain said no to 13 EU decisions yesterday. Eight were blocked in the development council by Baroness Chalker, and five more were blocked in the internal market council by Roger Freeman.

to opening up trade between Europe and Mexico.

to helping travellers who need emergency passports get assistance from any EU embassy.

agreement on co-ordinating aid to the Third World.

simplification of new laws on the single market and reducing the amount of new legislation.

agreement over checking that aid helps the people at whom it is aimed.

to ensuring that aid does not lead to mass migration to cities.

movement on clearing up the way aid is spent.

to measures designed to boost European industry.

backing for plans to help small business by improving communication between EU governments.

harmonisation of accountancy laws to encourage trade.

to studying the environmental impact of EU aid.

to a general decision on better co-ordination of EU development aid policy.

to making it easier for companies to register in other member states.