Retaliation move over beef ban

Howard threatens to block treaty on Euro police, writes Sarah Helm
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The Independent Online
The Government is threatening to block ratification of a key European treaty setting up Europol, the embryo European police force, unless progress is made on lifting the beef ban.

The threat, formulated by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is the first concrete sign that the Government will retaliate directly against its European partners. According to senior Whitehall sources, the plan to block Europol has been agreed by the Government in recent days following the growing anger at the refusal of other EU member states to agree to any easing of the blockade.

News that the Government is proposing the action has emerged as Europe's standing veterinary committee meets again today to consider whether to ease the ban on three beef products: gelatine, tallow and semen. The committee failed to agree to the partial lifting of the ban at a meeting in Brussels last Wednesday, when Germany led calls for keeping every element of the blockade in place.

The Government has so far insisted it will do nothing illegal to disrupt European business. However, the decision to focus retaliatory action on the Europol negotiations is carefully calculated to bring maximum pressure on Europe, and particularly the Germans. Germany has made the setting up of Europol - a police co-operation network - as a major priority in the fight against international crime and drug trafficking. Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, spoke last week of the urgent need to agree the Europol treaty.

Targeting Europol also allows Mr Howard to raise further criticisms of the European Court of Justice, which he attacked last week, calling for a reduction in the court's powers. The jurisdiction of the court over Europol has long been a British objection to the treaty.

For many European member states, the establishment of Europol is envisaged as one of the most positive policies currently on the Brussels books, as it would prove to European citizens that member states are protecting their interests. A Europol computer already exists in the Hague to allow information sharing. Under the new treaty, Europe's forces would be given new cross-border ties although no European force is envisaged as yet.

The convention was signed at the Cannes summit in June last year, but Britain then refused to endorse the proposal to bring Europol under the European Court's jurisdiction. Other member states argued that it was essential that the powers of the new policing network should be monitored and controlled by the Luxembourg court. But Britain saw it as an extension of the court's powers.

A deadline of a year was then set for member states to resolve this disagreement and agree terms on which they could all ratify the convention. Conventions must be ratified in each parliament before they can come into force.

Before the beef crisis arose, it is understood that a compromise formula was under discussion whereby Britain would agree to opt out of the section of the convention giving powers to the European Court. By agreeing to the opt-out, it would allow the other member states to go ahead.

According to Whitehall sources, Mr Howard is now letting his partners know that the Government will agree to the opt out only after "significant progress" towards easing of the beef ban. Otherwise Britain would refuse to ratify the treaty and Europol could be shelved.