Leading Article: Major's EU work-to-rule puts us all in peril

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The Prime Minister's threat to disrupt the EU until Britain gets its way on beef exports is wholly wrong. The ban on British exports has nothing to do with (mark his phrase) the "important national interests" of this country. The British work-to-rule in Europe will do nothing to help our beef farmers and beef traders. The threatened go-slow has everything to do with Mr Major's desperate need to appease the Euro-sceptic right wing, as much in the once-loyal columns of the Tory press, as in his own party.

The Euro-sceptics have as much concern for British trade and for British farmers as football hooligans have for football: their interest in this sorry affair is the political hooligans' tribal instinct for a punch-up with Europe. Now they have been given their way and as a result our relations with our European partners are in the utmost peril.

What exactly Mr Major intends to do is unclear. At a minimum, he will try to make a nonsense of the EU summit in Florence in June. At a maximum, Britain may try to block all EU legislation, even where a majority vote is allowed by the treaties. Mr Major's phrase "important national interests" is the accepted trigger for the use of Europe's ultimate deterrent, the Luxembourg Compromise, the politically accepted extra-legal right of national veto.

The last time Britain tried to use the veto to take legislation hostage was in 1980. We were roundly rebuffed. Imagine the response of the Euro- hating tendency if the same thing happened in this hysterical climate? We could then be on course for an escalating dispute. We could be facing the worst crisis with Europe since we joined the EEC 23 years ago.

The dispute desperately needs some proportion. Other European governments may have failed to grasp how explosive the issue had become in Britain. But British politicians and commentators have not grasped how difficult the Mad Cow issue has become for other Europeans. The continental beef market has been worse stricken by the BSE scare than the British market. Beef sales here are just 6 per cent down on last year. Sales of beef in France are down by 25 per cent; in Germany by 45 per cent, in Spain by 40 per cent and in Italy by 60 per cent. The Irish agriculture minister, Ivan Yates, spoke up in favour of Britain in Brussels yesterday, the only minister to do so. But he also warned that this was no longer a scientific matter but a question of consumer confidence. This country will only win back the confidence of European governments if we win the confidence of European consumers.

Consumers cannot be ordered to be confident. Even if their countries can be forced to import British beef, they cannot be forced to eat it. They remain deeply suspicious of our meat, however irrationally (but who, after all the confusions of recent months, can say that it is irrational?). This is not one of those arcane EU arguments over levels of barley set- asides. In the eyes of European consumers, it could be a matter of life and death.

Given the British government's mad cow record of muddle, half-truth, bluster and incompetence, (matched at times only by the press, it has to be admitted) it is remarkable that as many as seven EU countries supported Britain in the chief vets' meeting in Brussels on Monday. When the issue comes to a special meeting of farm ministers next month, Mr Major's threats are more likely to damage our cause than win the day.

The way forward is not to bully and threaten. It is to mount a gigantic marketing and public relations exercise for British beef. But first we need a credible message to market. When Perrier water was found to have been contaminated 10 years ago, the French company took the drastic step of recalling and destroying every bottle in circulation, whether affected or not. Within two years, Perrier had returned to pre-scare levels of sales and respect.

We are not advocating the destruction of all British bovines. But a much bigger effort is needed to convince the world that BSE is being rooted out of British herds. At the same time, an independent international scientific investigation should be sought by Britain - presided over by the World Health Organisation - to re-state the safety of our meat.

So far the Government has announced a cull of all beef cattle aged over 30 months: the oldest animals in the business, those which have shown no signs of developing BSE, are to be incinerated. Meanwhile the calves from BSE-infected herds, which could be incubating the disease, are left in the food chain. A supplementary slaughter programme of first 40,000, and then 80,000, of the cattle most "at-risk" has been offered by the Government to win support in Brussels.

This is not enough. The Government must revert to its original plan to cull all beef herds where BSE outbreaks have occurred. British farms should be restocked from BSE-free herds abroad. Dairy herds could be exempt, so long as their calves are kept out of the food chain. The European Union should be prepared to put in hundreds of millions of pounds to help to compensate farmers for these extra losses.

There are three lessons from this affair. None of them should be new to the Government. The first is that consumer markets are sometimes irrational but that doesn't mean they can be bucked. The second is that other countries have national anxieties and national interests which they cannot easily be bullied into abandoning. The third is that confronted with such a crisis the industry and the country desperately needs leadership to implement a strategy to put the industry back on a firm footing. Such a strategy is clearly available. It is a pity the Government prefers to try to bully and bluster its way out of the corner (it will fail) rather than adopt it.