EU to seek pounds 1bn refund from Britain over BSE crisis

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Indy Politics
Britain should be asked to repay more than pounds 1bn in European Union payments to farmers as punishment for its handling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, a European Parliament committee of inquiry concluded last night.

Winding up an eight-month probe into allegations of a cover-up of the health dangers posed by BSE, Euro MPs agreed to ask the European Commission to recover slaughter subsidies paid to Britain since the start of the crisis last March.

However, they rejected calls for EU legal proceedings against Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, for his failure to co-operate with the inquiry. Mr Hogg repeatedly refused to appear before the committee to be cross- examined.

The Labour MEP Phillip Whitehead, a member of the cross-party committee which argued against moves to exact financial retribution from Britain, said the parliament had no power to force Brussels to carry out its recommendation. "The purpose of the inquiry is to ensure that a crisis like the BSE crisis never happens again - not to determine financial liability or carry out a witch-hunt against those it holds responsible," he said.

Meanwhile, the commission's President, Jacques Santer, and his commission colleagues escaped moves to have them sacked en masse for the way in which Brussels handled the BSE crisis.

The MEPs backed away from a censure threat although they reserved the right to revive it if the commission refused to co-operate with demands for a range of new measures to protect consumers.

The committee voted against tabling an unprecedented motion of no-confidence in the European Commission. Parliament must sack all 20 commissioners if enough MEPs back such a motion, but this extreme power of censure has never before been exercised.

The final report of the inquiry finds both the commission and the British government guilty of a series of "misdemeanours and failures" in their handling of the BSE epidemic.

It stops short, however, of accusing either of a deliberate cover-up. Instead, Britain is told that it must proceed with the slaughter of 120,000 high-risk cattle while the commission is ordered to carry out a staff shake-up and an overhaul of the expert committees that it relies on for advice about food safety and scientific/veterinary matters.

The commission will respond to the report in Strasbourg on 19 February.