BSE: big chance for Brussels

The European Union should use the beef crisis to win support in Britain, writes John Lichfield
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The Independent Online
BSE is infectious; it promotes an infectious incaution among politicians, officials and the media. The hysteria has now spread to Britain's relations with Europe, a sick relation if ever there was one. The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, has exceeded his personal authority (but not the Commission's) in announcing a worldwide ban on British beef exports.

Informed commentators in this country profess surprise that the European Union has a right to regulate our trade with non-EU countries. How surprising that they should be surprised. This was something we surrendered not at Maastricht, not in the Single European Act, but when we joined the then EEC in 1973.

The real issues of Europe and BSE lie elsewhere. There are at least three.

First, Mr Fischler had no right to impose the ban, using his own authority or even that of the 14 senior vets from other member states who met in Brussels on Monday. The decision should properly have gone to today's meeting of the full Commission.

The second issue is whether there is sufficient medical evidence for such a ban. The whole scientific argument has become so obfuscated that it is impossible for a layman - or even a specialist - to give a sensible answer. Brussels was reacting not scientifically but politically. Most of the big beef-importing countries, such as the United States, banned our beef long ago. All EU countries save two have unilaterally followed suit in recent days. The worldwide ban - if confirmed - is there to distinguish between British and non-British beef. Its real aim is to shore up confidence in the global beef exports of other EU countries.

The third issue - and the most important - is what else Brussels plans to do. Agriculture, rightly or wrongly, is another policy area largely surrendered by member states to Brussels. There is a serious, potentially crippling, sickness in Europe's agricultural family. Even if the sickness is partly of our own making, we have a right, as members of the family, not just to be quarantined but to be helped towards recovery.

As things stand, the BSE row looks likely to spoil the launch in Turin on Friday of the rolling Inter-Governmental Conference on the future shape of the EU. The Turin summit was hardly shaping up to be a conspicuous success. One row, it seems, will blend seamlessly into the other. But such an outcome is not inevitable.

In all honesty, the EU has more right to be angry with the British government than does London with the EU. For six years or more, the European Commission and the other member states have fought a rearguard action to keep the Continental market open for British beef. All other leading importers - including our American and Australian friends and cousins - banned our meat at the slightest suspicion of a problem. The commission swallowed, and defended, the British line that a) BSE was not transferable to humans and b) everything possible had been done to prevent meat sold for human consumption from being exposed to the disease.

On the first point, scientists and the British government have changed their minds. On the second point, substantial evidence has emerged that too little was done by the deregulation-obsessed Thatcher government in the late 1980s to fence off the infection from the human food chain.

It may be true, as British farmers say, that there is also a BSE problem lurking on the Continent. But many of the proven cases - including those found in Brittany this week - are traceable to British sources, largely because Brussels fought to protect the cross-Channel trade in live animals. Mr Fischler also complains that, even when the new scientific evidence began to emerge, Whitehall kept Brussels in the dark.

There is undoubtedly some Euro-schadenfreude here. Britain loves to lecture its partners on its scrupulous observation of the European rules and the superiority of our national standards to some Continental standards (take a bow, Michael Portillo). There is an element of grim delight in finding such a stick to beat Britain with - in the Turin summit week of all weeks.

This is human nature. But Europe - if it is serious about persuading Britain to join the club in spirit as well as in form - is in danger of missing an important trick. BSE is shaping up as the greatest British political crisis for many years: a crisis of confidence in the whole apparatus of government. This should be an opportunity to suggest to the British people that membership of a Europewide union provides comfort and solidarity, not just free trade and red passports.

The EU could help by subjecting the British government's latest scientific analysis and safeguards (ie, the claim that British beef is now safe) to a rigorous independent investigation, the results of which should be made public. That, in essence, is what Mr Fischler proposes. If he is then able to recommend a lifting of the embargo, he might have done more to restore international and domestic confidence in British beef than a simple, unquestioning acceptance of the word of THIS government.

But we should expect more from Brussels. At some point, if UK beef prices continue to fall, our farmers will be eligible automatically for EU aid. What remains of the notorious intervention system - the guarantee to buy up unwanted food if it falls below a certain price - will come into play. But intervention in beef is now much more limited than it used to be (partly, and quite rightly so, at British insistence). Standard EU subsidies will not save the beef industry from ruin and certainly will not restore its good name.

Some great propitiatory bonfire of older British cattle - however unscientific - now seems to be demanded as the price of rebuilding consumer confidence. The Cabinet is balking at such a step because of the great cost involved (pounds 1bn at the very minimum). This may, in turn, be because Brussels is reluctant to pay part of the bill.

Why? There is plenty of money sloshing around in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget, isn't there? No, and also yes.

It is a misconception that Brussels can simply dole out money to farmers in trouble. There has to be an agreed policy; there have to be available funds. The total amount available for animal disease eradication throughout Europe this year is pounds 53m. The entire pounds 31bn CAP budget for 1996 is under some pressure.

It does transpire, however, that Brussels expects CAP reforms and high world food prices to produce an enormous potential surplus - maybe pounds 3bn - in the farm budget over the next three years. Arguments are already raging about the ownership of this cash. Brussels wants to spend some of it on large transport projects; Britain wants to give it back to the taxpayers (ie, to put the UK share towards its own tax cut and re-election fund).

Europe - not just Britain - faces an agricultural crisis. A special programme should be drawn up to help farmers to get rid of all European cattle over a certain age that could possibly have been exposed to BSE. Brussels should use the creative accountancy for which it is famous to borrow the needed funds from the CAP surpluses expected in future years.

Yes, Britain and British farmers would benefit most. But we have paid faithfully into the CAP for 23 years, mostly for the benefit of Continental and Irish farmers. Instead of exchanging insults in Turin, the European Commission, Britain and its EU partners should seize this opportunity by the horns.