EC has a beef about the east

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The Independent Online
THE European Commission yesterday accused Eastern Europe of 'unacceptable' behaviour in the growing farm-trade war. Claiming its ban on imports of dairy produce and cattle was purely for veterinary reasons, the EC said the Eastern European nations that had reacted with a trade blockade of their own were turning a medical problem into a political one.

While there is a genuine problem with the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Eastern Europe, the EC actions have exacerbated an existing crisis over trade. Eastern Europe feels it has not been given sufficient access to the western market, that Brussels treats it in a high-handed way, and that greater attention is paid to Russia than to its former satellites.

Sir Leon Brittan, the EC's external trade Commissioner, sought to calm the row yesterday, saying: 'Nobody wants that ban to last a moment more than is justified.' But he is already fighting to combat steel quotas on Eastern European exports. Sir Leon's preference for free-market solutions is not universally shared in the Commission.

The row has also coincided with a conference in Copenhagen on co-operation between east and west, which finished yesterday with a high-minded declaration on the importance of free trade. But many on the east of the old Iron Curtain feel it has been replaced by new barriers to trade. A French representative at the conference emphasised that the EC could not open its doors in sectors which were experiencing difficulties, like steel and agriculture. Agreements negotiated last year with Poland, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia remain unratified in most of the EC's member states.

The Commission's irritation is because it feels it has a genuine case for closing the door on Eastern European cattle. There are few effective controls on the export of agricultural goods between East European nations, and hence a threat from one - foot-and-mouth disease has been identified in cattle from Croatia - can be a threat from all.

Eastern European states meet tomorrow in Prague to consider their next steps.