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Europe leaders let Major off mad cow hook

"I WISH the cameras had been in here and the Eurosceptics had heard this debate," said John Major, as his fellow European leaders finished their lunch of veal and wild fruits at the Turin summit on Friday, his birthday.

It was a remark that Mr Major may wish he had not made. He revealed just how relieved he was at the help offered by Europe over the British beef crisis. There had been no gloating - at least in public - over Mr Major's dilemma. Rather, each leader gathered round the table at the Meridian Hotel offered expressions of "solidarity". After the coffee came a signal from afar that the worst of the crisis might be over. As if he had caught wind of the reassuring noises from Turin, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, called John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, to say that 6,000 Irish cattle floating off the Egyptian coast would be allowed into port. Tomorrow, all the signs are that European Agriculture ministers will pave the way for a lifting of the world-wide ban.

But will this bonding over beef lead Britain to bond with Europe in any wider sense? Two weeks ago the Turin summit had looked all set to be simply a symbolic launch for the rolling inter-governmental conference (IGC) on European reform. The agenda had largely been agreed in terms so nebulous that even the British would not yet be able to object.

But at the launch of the conference the only real question was how to respond to British mad cows. Britain's 14 European partners and the European Commission had "ring-fenced" British beef, and a more dramatic metaphor for Britain's isolation in Europe could hardly have been conceived. But the ring-fence hadn't prevented the spread of fear across the Channel, and plummeting consumer confidence was dragging down prices all across Europe.

While the potential for a serious bust-up at Turin was evident, Mr Major desperately needed Europe's help. The subject was to be raised over lunch and when the 12 sat down at the Meridian, therefore, the stage was set for a test of Mr Major's diplomatic skills.

As lunch began Jacques Chirac, the French President, led the assembled guests through an exposition of his social vision of Europe in the 21st century, while the Prime Minister chomped patiently through his mixed vegetable and asparagus starter, waiting for his chance to lead his colleagues through the cowsheds of Britain.

When his turn came he calmly detailed measures he was taking to eradicate BSE: inspection procedures, deboning systems and mechanical removals. He again attacked the hysteria, calling for an agreement to be reached as soon as possible, and awaited the reaction.

Jacques Santer, the Commission President, went first and in reassuring tones told Mr Major kindly: "We are all affected by this." Then came Mr Chirac, who spoke of the "European problem" and went on to decry the "media hysteria". Everyone - Mr Major most vigorously - nodded in agreement They had suddenly found common cause and reason, perhaps, to heal their divisions. The BSE crisis was not, after all, Britain's fault or Europe's - it was the media's. Europe would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain to fight the "media hysteria". Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, urged Mr Major to "go on the offensive" and ensure solid information was available to "counter the media hysteria". As the European heads were herded down the corridors for their final press conferences, they were talking about the BSE crisis in the past tense, as if it was already over.

The purely political divisions over beef may have been resolved in Turin, but it is highly doubtful that the episode has produced any lessons for Britain or its European partners about their joint futures.

For all their expressions of "solidarity", the leaders forged their joint approach as much out of mutual self-interest as any real common purpose. It is not only the British beef industry which has been threatened by the crisis. Mr Chirac wanted to stop the "hysteria" as much as Mr Major, once he saw French beef prices drop by 30 per cent. As one British diplomat put it yesterday: "This is a good example of where, as long as self-interest coincides, a common European response can come about."

Mr Major, while grateful for the help, still believes the European ban "turned a problem into a crisis". He showed no regret about failing to consult Europe in advance, and repeated that a European aid package would have no bearing on his negotiating strategy in the IGC.

Asked what lessons he had learned from the crisis, Mr Major said candidly: "I think the lessons for the future are that we will continue to do what we have done in the past."