Binding deal is forlorn hope

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Indy Politics
Hopes of avoiding a bitter and damaging confrontation over beef at the European Union summit in Florence next week appeared to be fading last night.

A revised British five-point plan to solve the dispute will be discussed by EU veterinary experts in Brussels today. But officials said there was little chance of agreement on the detailed and virtually binding framework demanded by Britain for the gradual lifting of the ban on beef exports from the United Kingdom. The only hope of an agreement before Florence was a vague statement of intent, which could leave much of the ban in place for many months, even years.

The Government long ago abandoned hopes of achieving a specific timetable for lifting the ban in time for next Friday and Saturday's summit. Yesterday, officials conceded that even hopes of securing a general framework for a phased lifting were now fading. As long as "elements of a deal are there at Florence", the deal itself could be concluded later, a British source said.

In the meantime, there was no question of Britain abandoning its wholesale blocking of EU business. In these circumstances, the summit itself looks increasingly likely to fall victim to British "disruption".

The Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, who will chair the summit, had talks with John Major in Downing Street yesterday. Afterwards he said they had made "good progress", adding: "You approach the moment in which you don't see the solution plan but you see what can be the solution." He said: "We are making progress, but we are not there yet."

There is a wide divergence of opinion on what form a framework settlement might take. Britain wants something virtually binding on other countries. Officials from several other governments say the most Mr Major can expect is a vague "piece of paper". Even that may be in doubt, given French outrage at the revelation that Britain had stepped up sales to France of animal feed contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) after it was banned in the UK in 1988. Britain is asking the other governments to agree to a process which would leave the ultimate power to peel away the ban with the European Commission. Once they had agreed the "framework" in five steps, it would be up to the commission to decide when Britain had met the requirements to trigger each stage. It would take a majority of members to reject the commission's advice.

There is an immense irony in the Government's position, which is, in effect, Euro-federalist. It would give power to the commission to impose a settlement over the heads of individual member states. "When the commission is satisfied that a scientific basis exists for lifting another part of the ban it is imperative that a few member states should not be able to block it for national political reasons," Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, explained to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Is this, Brussels might ask, the approach Britain will be content to adopt with all future EU business?

The British plan to resolve the BSE dispute

UK beef exports would be resumed in five stages. Dates would depend on recommendations from the European Commission. The five stages are:

Trade with non-EU countries (with guarantees that the meat will not be re-exported to the EU)

Exports to the EU of calf embyros.

Exports to the EU of live animals born after Brussels has

approved Britain's efforts to wipe out `mad cow disease'.

Exports to the EU of beef from herds certified by the EU to be free of BSE.

Exports of meat from all animals under 30 months old,

after Brussels declares UK slaughterhouse safeguards to be adequate.