Bruton stands up for 'crucial' EU business

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The Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, whose government takes over the European Union Presidency next month, rounded on the British Government last night for its "deplorable" disruption of crucial EU business. After talks in Bonn with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Mr Bruton said both leaders agreed that Britain must not be allowed to wreck the Florence summit.

The attack came as splits emerged in the Government over the strategy of blocking European measures to bring about a lifting of the ban on exports.

Senior ministers said the Government should begin retreating from the blanket blocking of measures and adopt the selective approach urged by Robin Cook, Labour spokesman for foreign affairs, and the senior British Commissioner Leon Brittan.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, is expected by colleagues to urge the Cabinet to respond to the partial lifting of the beef ban by reducing the range of the action taken in blocking measures in the council of ministers.

After holding up a series of agreements at talks in Luxembourg, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said the Government policy was designed to concentrate minds, and last night's breakthrough in the campaign to relax the beef ban proved it was working.

But senior ministers said reducing the blocking action would encourage Britain's partners to go further in lifting the beef ban. "Major has got to get himself off this hook. We have got to find a way out. We can't let the blocking go on indefinitely," said one. They are pressing Mr Major to announce a victory and reduce the retaliatory action before the Florence summit in three weeks, although the chances of winning any meaningful framework for the lifting of the ban before then appeared yesterday to be slight.

A "fig-leaf" agreement, under which loosely phrased long-term objectives might be set out, is the most the Prime Minster can expect, according to EU officials and diplomats. Without more substantial guarantees, it seems increasingly likely that Mr Major will go to Florence and be obligedto carry out his threat to sabotage the summit.

The campaign to secure a "framework", under which Britain hopes a phased programme for lifting the beef ban can be agreed, was launched in earnest yesterday when Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, went to Brussels to offer outline proposals to Jacques Santer, the European Commission President. Mr Rifkind said that the summit would be disrupted if the deal was not agreed beforehand.

The Commission is currently the Government's only sure ally in the beef war. It was the Commission which tabled the proposal to lift the ban on gelatin, tallow and semen. And it is the Commission which will implement that proposal within the next few days.

It appears highly unlikely, however, that Mr Santer will be able to give Mr Major his "framework" in time for the Florence summit. Britain wants the framework to identify the next phases for lifting the ban, starting with an end to the blockade of exports to third countries, followed by an end to the blockade of exports of young calves and then ending the blockade on meat from BSE-free, grass-fed herds.

A spokesman for Mr Santer said that Mr Rifkind and Mr Hogg had submitted elements which "may contribute to bringing this framework forward".

Britain hopes that member states will sign the framework like a blank cheque. But one Brussels official said yesterday that nobody would accept such a "pig in a poke". Britain's partners appeared yesterday to have hardened their attitude towards the Government.

Several European measures have been blocked by British ministers, including a key decision to establish Europol, the Europe-wide police network.

France yesterday urged Britain to refrain from blocking further European business. The Commission made clear that its continued support would depend on Britain reducing its sabotage campaign.

Germany appeared to be hardening its line.Some Bonn believe they may be unable to carry out even the Commission's initial instruction to lift the ban on gelatin, tallow and semen, due to public opposition.