The ultimatum, agreed at a meeting of the German cabinet yesterday, would theoretically take effect if no agreement is reached at a meeting of agricultural ministers in Brussels in three weeks' time. But Horst Seehofer, the German health minister, emphasised that there was no cut-off date for the ultimatum, which was approved by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In effect, the time- delayed ban, which must be approved by the German regions, is a way of stepping up the pressure on Germany's European partners to accept Bonn's way of thinking.
The European Commission has repeatedly made clear that any go- it-alone action by Germany would put it in breach of EU rules, and would probably land Germany in court. This would be politically deeply embarrassing, in a country which is always keen to brandish its pro-European credentials. Despite the rhetoric, it remains almost unthinkable that Germany would go ahead with a unilateral ban.
None the less, even the threat of such a ban will force other agriculture ministers to take the German complaint seriously. Germany has shown no sign of backing off from its view that, in the absence of certain knowledge about the transmission of BSE, and whether humans can be infected with a version of the disease, it is impossible to be too careful.
Mr Seehofer yesterday again emphasised the dangers that can arise from ignoring the possible dangers of BSE. 'We saw it with Aids. If a (human) case now happens, the questions would be the other way round: 'Why didn't you act earlier?' '
Gillian Shephard, the British agriculture minister, yesterday said that Germany's decision not to introduce an immediate ban was 'welcome news'. She seemed ready to portray the Cabinet decision as a retreat.
But Mr Seehofer, who said he had the 'full support of Chancellor Kohl', made clear that Germany will continue to press for tougher measures, which would allow only animals less than three years old, and from herds that have been declared BSE-free for more than four years, to be exported. Germany emphasises the dangers which lie in the long incubation period of BSE.
Mr Seehofer defends his radical proposals by referring to the recommendations of a conference on BSE in Berlin last year. He yesterday dismissed British claims of German protectionism as 'absurd' and said that there could be 'nothing more damaging' than protectionism.
The amount of British beef imported to Germany is in any case hardly enough to cause a trade war; 1,000 tonnes, or 100g per head of population, last year.
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