The Europe Debate: Bloody-minded Britain left as 'drifting ship'

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Last night's failure by Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, to secure political backing from Britain's European Union partners for a lifting of the ban on beef derivatives will lead to tougher tactics in disrupting EU business.

As talks went late into the night it became clear Britain would probably secure a partial lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen even without a clear vote of support in the ministerial meeting. Hopes were raised when Spain signalled that it would support the proposal, tabled by the European Commission, bringing the number of countries in favour to nine, with six against. Britain was still short of the qualified majority necessary for the agriculture ministers to vote the measure through. EU procedures dictate that the measure should be implemented anyway by the European Commission. The Commission is obliged to enforce the lifting of the ban on gelatine, semen and tallow given that no clear ruling was achieved in the ministerial meeting.

Mr Hogg presented a 121-page document to agriculture ministers listing British BSE eradication measures in his latest attempt to secure a lifting of the ban.

Mr Hogg yesterday repeated John Major's insistence that Britain's programme of disruption of EU business would continue unless the ban on the three beef by-products was lifted and a "framework" for removing the entire ban was agreed. The Government's message last night was that without progress, Britain would proceed with its threat to sabotage the Florence summit in three weeks' time.

As Mr Hogg was attempting to win over his European counterparts, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, and Eric Forth, the Employment Minister, were spearheading an intensified veto campaign by blocking eight measures in separate European Council meetings. Mr Clarke, who blocked a long-standing measure to combat EU fraud, previously supported by Britain, said he had told fellow finance ministers that Britain would continue to block all decisions requiring unanimity until a framework was in place for lifting the ban. Mr Forth infuriated his European partners by blocking a plan to designate 1997 as the European Year Against Racism.

The disruption brought the strongest protests yet from European commissioners and ministers, who cautioned that other governments would soon begin their own counter-retaliation measures against Britain. Ivan Yates, the Irish Agriculture Minister, said there would come a point when continental member states "get as bloody-minded as the British".

Karel van Miert, commissioner for the internal market, said: "Britain is playing with fire. The more they block EU decisions the more they run the risk of all the others lining up against them," he said.

Padraig Flynn, commissioner for social affairs, said the decision to block the anti-racism measure had brought "palpable disappointment". He added: "This shows the bad effect of the UK policy. They stood alone and a proposal to combat racism has fallen victim to their policy."

Britain's campaign to secure the lifting of the beef ban is being conducted on three fronts. Mr Hogg's document detailing eradication measures is designed to reassure member states that Britain is instituting a concerted anti-BSE programme. The document listed culling plans, and a programme for increased monitoring. Mr Hogg said proposals were also to be made under which farmers could be convicted of a criminal offence should they be found to be keeping or using infected cattle feed on their premises. Apart from this proposal, however, Mr Hogg conceded yesterday that the document contained "nothing new".

On a second front, Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and Mr Hogg will today attempt to launch negotiations for a longer-term framework for lifting the entire ban. Mr Rifkind will discuss proposals in Brussels with Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, under which the ban would be lifted for exports to third countries for calves and for cattle fed on grass and cleared of BSE.

The programme of disrupting EU business will continue, as the third prong of the strategy. Included in the measures opposed by Mr Clarke yesterday was a proposal granting money to help pay for elections in Bosnia. Among plans blocked by Mr Forth was a move to increase equal opportunities for women in industry and commerce.