Budapest bars EC cattle in trade war

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THE European Community has run into an embarrassing trade war with Eastern Europe on the eve of a conference on support for the region. At the weekend, both Poland and Hungary slammed a ban on imports of livestock and dairy products from the EC following a similiar ban by Brussels.

The EC said its ban was to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. The ban, which came into force on Wednesday, will apply until 10 March. Yesterday, 20 truckloads of cattle from Germany and the Netherlands were stuck on the border between Hungary and Slovakia after Budapest refused to admit them and Bratislava said it would not allow them back. Bulgaria has also complained about the EC move.

Poland and Hungary say their countries are free of the disease and that they will lose millions of dollars in exports from the EC move.

There is some disquiet over the decision in Brussels where the Agriculture Commissioner, Rene Steichen, is said to regard the ban as excessive. German oficials also have reservations. The suspicion is that the ban will favour EC farmers, who are displaying mounting opposition to changes in the EC's Common Agriculture Policy, while costing the Eastern Europeans dearly.

Though foot and mouth disease has reappeared in Europe, the cause is believed to be Croatian cattle, experts say. So far it has been contained in Italy. What is particularly embarrassing about this row is that it comes on the eve of a conference sponsored by the Danish government on providing support for Eastern Europe. It seems to underline the EC's restrictive attitude on trade, a subject of frequent complaint from the east. Denmark is hoping that the conference will result in a Copenhagen declaration on Wednesday.

There is also a struggle going on in the Commission over planned limits on Eastern European exports of steel to the EC as part of an industry restructuring package. Western European companies are also complaining about imports of chemicals such as soda ash and PVC from Eastern Europe, another critical export sector.

The eastern Europeans are also concerned about progress in ratifying trade agreements signed last year.