The Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, presented new proposals yesterday for the slaughter of 42,000 cattle, but said the condition for implementation was a date for the phasing out of the boycott. But while most ministers welcomed the plan as a step in the right direction, they rejected any link between that and a commitment to when the ban could start to be phased out.
Outlining the policy which would target animals most at risk from BSE, Mr Hogg said: "I see no real prospect of getting these proposals through Parliament unless there are clear signs of movement that indicate a total lifting of the ban. And it will have to be in a fairly short period of time". He added that it was in the interests of every member state "to take BSE out of the headlines".
But the consensus, as ministers prepared for a late-night debate on the crisis appeared to be that much more would have to be done. Specifically they warned that they would need clear guarantees about how the plan would be implemented, enforced and controlled.
Irish agriculture minister Ivan Yates said he wanted to see an early solution but warned: "There is not a realistic prospect of a lifting of the ban at this stage". Reflecting the general view of the new selective cull proposals he said they were "minimalist" and might not be enough to convince some countries to lift even the ban on gelatine and beef by- products.
Mr Hogg will today battle for a written conclusion from the Luxembourg meeting which will allow him to claim he has secured political backing for a phased dismantling of the ban. A majority of his colleagues will, however, want to refer the new proposals back to their chief veterinary officers.
Germany in particular demanded that health experts be consulted as well as the existing EU standing veterinary committee which is scheduled to meet on 7 May.
French minister Philippe Vasseur appeared to offer some hope to Britain admitting that the ban would have to be eased eventually. "We cannot envisage maintaining the embargo eternally. We must gradually remove it". But he ruled out any political decision even on a first phase of relaxing the boycott until a panel of European scientists has reassessed the evidence and the new measures proposed by Britain.
Criticism of the latest plans focuses on the fact that they aim only to "lessen" the cases of BSE rather than to eradicate the disease. Mr Yates said there was considerable residual anger at Britain's handling of the crisis and most ministers felt that it would send the wrong signal if ministers were seen to be responding to political pressure from Britain.
Spanish minister Luis Atienza pointed out that Spain had been shut out of EU markets for its pork for 30 years while it grappled with the eradication of swine fever. The problem could not be solved by "a quick political fix", he said.