Always the bad Europeans

Britain has shocked Europe with its shameless hypocrisy over the BSE crisis.
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The Independent Online
MOST governments, when facing a crisis that is widely viewed to be of their own making, suffer from the temptation to blame somebody else. Usually it is opposition political parties or newspapers. But the best targets are foreigners.

The efforts of John Major's government to divert public anger over the beef crisis towards the European Union are inflicting serious damage on Britain's relations with its Continental partners. If they had not seen it all before, the other Europeans would be astonished at the Government's idea of co-operation - blame the EU, but demand money from it at the same time.

In a remark typical of Continental reaction, the president of the French cattle federation, Joseph Dole, described the British as "convinced anti- Europeans who are taking the mickey out of us in this mad cow affair and who should count themselves lucky today to be getting help from Europe".

Such a response is entirely understandable when one reads thexenophobic garbage published by Lord Tebbit in his column in the Sun last Thursday. "Douglas Hogg, the unfortunate Agriculture minister, was kicked all around the room in Luxembourg this week by the foreigners who now govern Britain," he wrote, adding that "our masters" were "intent on grinding Mr Hogg and this country into the dirt".

Lord Tebbit expressed this view on the day that details emerged from a Government-commissioned study showing that in November 1994 30 per cent of slaughterhouses in England and Wales scored less than 50 out of 100 for meat hygiene standards. Another independent report from 1993 warned that some slaughterhouses should have been closed years ago on health grounds.

Consider how the crisis looks from a Continental perspective. Britain gave its EU partners no advance warning of the Government's intention to announce to the House of Commons on 20 March that new evidence suggested mad cow disease could be transmitted to humans. Common sense tells us that such a statement was bound to have a dramatic effect on beef markets on the Continent, not least because so many British beef products were available there. Courtesy and good political judgement dictated that there should have been a co-ordinated EU strategy on how to release the disturbing new information to the British and Continental publics.

The Government not only failed to do this but compounded its error by refusing to be specific about how it intended to tackle the mad cow problem in the light of the new evidence. It seemed to expect other EU countries to be satisfied with Mr Dorrell's promise of more scientific research and his gobbledygook about how it was just as important for us "not to overreact as it is for us not to underreact".

How could other EU member-states avoid taking emergency steps to ban British beef when the hard facts are that 161,000 British cattle have mad cow disease and there are fewer than 400 cases in the rest of the world? Moreover, insofar as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disease exists on the Continent, there are grounds to suspect that it was caused by cattle or feed imported from Britain.

Given the Government's inability to give categorical assurances about the safety of beef, and that it failed to consult with the EU over how to deal with the crisis, the Germans, French and others appear to have reacted in an entirely natural way - indeed, the only possible way. Was it irresponsible of them to try to protect their beef industries and keep their publics calm?

As we have seen, even the latter objective has proved impossible, with beef consumption slumping in most Continental countries as a result of the crisis in Britain. No wonder that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany commented that Britain views "European solidarity as a one- way street".

Mr Major's reaction was to allege that a "collective hysteria", instigated by the media, the Opposition and Europe, had quite unnecessarily fractured confidence in beef. Yet the Government's insistence that the EU ban on British beef should be lifted takes no account of the main objective, eliminating BSE.

That is what people in other EU countries, and indeed in Britain,want to see. Until BSE ceases to exist on such a large scale in this country, there is little reason to believe that lifting the EU ban will restore confidence abroad in British beef.

Other countries believe Britain has never got to grips with its BSE problem. Two developments have confirmed them in this view. The first was the fumbling, indecisive manner in which the Government presented the latest findings about BSE and its possible connection to the degenerative brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

The second was Mr Hogg's reluctance, at last week's meeting of EU farm ministers in Luxembourg, to contemplate a cull of British cattle on the scale required to deal with the crisis. EU leaders meeting in Turin a few days previously had formed the clear impression from Mr Major that Britain would propose a large cull, and their jaws dropped in amazement when Mr Hogg did nothing of the kind.

Their astonishment at British hypocrisy was reinforced by Mr Hogg's demand that the EU should pay 80 per cent of the bill for slaughtering British cattle. As Germany's agriculture minister, Jochen Borchert, pointed out, Britain had urged the EU to pay as little compensation as possible to Germany when swine fever broke out there in 1994.

The Spanish newspaper El Mundo neatly summed up the British attitude: "The government which enthusiastically defends the free market and decries state intervention is now asking for a substantial public subsidy to mend a mistake that it will not even recognise."

In the circumstances, it is surprising that EU countries have shown as much understanding for Britain's predicament as they have. This was acknowledged by Mr Major at the Turin summit, where he commented: "I only wish my own Eurosceptics at home could have been here at this meeting to see how the rest of the European Union has rallied round in solidarity and support."

Quite so. Other EU states have not the slightest interest in victimising Britain over mad cow disease. Their view is that an EU-wide beef crisis has flared up and it needs to be overcome on an EU-wide basis. However, since the origins of the crisis lie in Britain, that is where tough measures need to be taken.

The Government's political strategy in the beef crisis - don't tell the EU anything, then deny there is a problem, then blame the EU for this non-existent problem, then ask the EU for money to solve it - could have serious long-term consequences for Britain. It is likely to strengthen the view of France, Germany, the Benelux countries and others that the best way forward for the EU is to create an inner circle of states committed to deeper integration.

Britain will, of course, be outside this circle but will inevitably be greatly affected by decisions taken within it. Britain's ability to make its influence count on important issues will diminish accordingly.

Mr Major's balancing act during the beef crisis, which has involved him in condemning the EU for hysteria one minute and praising its support for Britain the next, is no doubt attributable partly to his tiny parliamentary majority and his consequent need to placate both the anti-European and the pro-European wings of the Tory party. But the requirements of party management cannot fully explain the Government's attitude to the EU over the last two weeks.

This attitude, a mixture of lofty abuse and abject whining, is indicative of a Government that lacks confidence in itself and in its dealings with some of its closest foreign allies. It underlines how profoundly alien the Government finds the culture of friendly co-operation and mutual help that is the very essence of the EU.

It is not widely known here that the European Commission opened proceedings last February against the German Land of Rhineland-Palatinate, which had banned British beef, on the grounds that the action was an illegal impediment to trade. That is how the Commission works: impartial enforcement of rules agreed by all, not premeditated discrimination against Britain.

The Government's tendency to heap blame on the EU whenever it can seems partly deliberate strategy and partly instinctive. It may also have something to do with the adversarial structure of British politics: the constant verbal warfare between Government and opposition here is carried over into the Government's dealings with its EU partners.

On the Continent, coalition governments and consensus politics are far more prevalent. This translates into greater harmony at EU level.

One can only wonder how the Government would have reacted if it had been French beef, Spanish pork or Danish bacon that had been infected. We know the answer.

There is a way for Britain to get out of the hole it has dug for itself over mad cow disease. That is to eliminate BSE once and for all from British herds. The sooner the Government gets on with it, the better.