German Health Minister presses for UK beef ban

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THE German Health Minister, Horst Seehofer, will press his demand for a unilateral ban on importing British beef at a cabinet meeting today. But his officials are far from confident that he will win.

Health Ministry staff spoke of 'a certain tension' between ministers over the 'mad-cow disease' (BSE) scare. Equally, however, the politicians seemed unlikely to be daunted by the renewed warnings from Gillian Shephard, the British Agriculture Minister, of action under European law. She yesterday claimed that the German stance was a mere 'spoiling tactic to distract from other problems', and argued: 'It seems to me that their attitude has nothing whatever to do with science and everything to do with German politics.'

If the cabinet approves Mr Seehofer's radical demands, then the political damage will be considerable. The current view among EU officials in Brussels is that existing precautions to prevent the spread of BSE are already sufficient. The Commission again warned yesterday that it would take the German government to court, in the event of a unilateral ban.

In stark contrast to Britain, German politicians are keen to be seen as Euro-friendly, and there are (pace Ms Shephard) few votes to be gained from direct confrontation with Brussels. Thus, both the Foreign Ministry and Chancellor Helmut Kohl's office have shown little enthusiasm for a go-it-alone policy. Instead, Bonn has tried hard to persuade other European countries to agree to the German proposals.

The core of the German argument is that the long incubation time of BSE makes it difficult to predict whether a version of the disease could transfer to humans. It is therefore impossible, say the Germans, to be too careful. The British say the danger is not proven, the Germans that it is 'not excluded'.

Whether because she is seeking to mislead or because of a lack of understanding, Ms Shephard has consistently portrayed the issue as one of German election-year chauvinism and trade wars. But the amount of British beef imported by Germany is in any case small. Rather, the German attitude is based on an absolutism which may or may not prove to be justified, but which probably has as much to do with paranoia as with patriotism.

The Germans base their call for toughness on a conference on BSE in Berlin last year, and recommendations which were later submitted to Mr Seehofer. Defending his call for a unilateral ban, Mr Seehofer told the Independent last week: 'With the best will in the world, I can't say that I don't care, and just leave that report in a drawer.'

In advance of next month's European elections, today's cabinet meeting will be unwilling to throw down an obvious gauntlet to Brussels. Such a challenge might play well in Britain, but would be difficult to defend in Germany. If the cabinet votes in favour of an immediate ban, the result will be a domestic and international explosion. Instead, Bonn may continue to put pressure on its EU partners by threatening unilateral action at a later date, unless the rest of the Twelve acknowledge what Germany still considers to be the risks. Whatever happens at today's session, Bonn does not yet look ready to retreat, in the longer term.

(Photograph omitted)