Leading Article: Only a classic Euro-compromise can save us

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The Independent Online
The great British beef war of 1996 has, predictably, turned into a messy British embarrassment. The implication of the tough talking by other European ministers in Luxembourg yesterday is that their governments are preparing to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with John Major. Even the Dutch put their clogs into Malcolm Rifkind at yesterday's meeting of EU foreign ministers. When you've made the civil Dutch angry, you can be sure you are in real trouble. How can anyone, apart from the most unreconstructed little Englanders, take pleasure in this? The whole sorry episode can only go on damaging this country's true interests in Europe.

However, it was also the Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans Van Mierlo, who came up with a sensible proposal that might yet provide Mr Major with an escape route, if he is willing, or able, to take it. The proposal has a familiar logic (ask Gerry Adams). In essence, the Dutch said, an outline deal may still be possible, but not before the British government announces a ceasefire.

The European Commission would propose a framework, or statement of intent, for the step-by-step lifting of the beef export ban over several years; Britain would end its blocking tactics; and then member governments would discuss and, hopefully, agree the Commission plan. This would involve something of a public climb-down for the Government. But it could also declare something of a victory. If the whole process could be speeded up so it took place over a couple of days, or even one afternoon, it should be possible for Mr Major to sign up.

It is time for the Government to cut its losses. The entire misbegotten campaign was based on the view that Continentals don't like it up 'em; bully them a bit and they'll cave in. This has proved hopelessly wrong. Britain's technical case against the beef ban was good. Our political case was poor, even selfish.

The Government's announcement in March that BSE could lead to a similar disease in humans caused consumer panic across the Continent and sent beef markets into free fall. Even now, with the British domestic beef trade almost back to normal, German and French sales of non-British beef remain one third below last year's levels. In other words, this is a real political and domestic issue for our partners, not some arcane Euro dispute over money or principle.

In domestic political terms, standing up to British blocking tactics and refusing any further lifting of the beef ban is the painless thing for Continental governments to do. There is no big constituency in Germany crying out for an obscure and technical EU anti-fraud measure (however sensible). There is a big constituency which is terrified of British beef (rightly or wrongly).

At the same time, there is genuine fury and bafflement in Europe that Britain should try to bludgeon agreement on such a complex issue, where there are rights and wrongs on both sides. Something rather ugly, something personal, is creeping into the dispute. There appears to be a growing determination on the Continent to teach Mr Major a lesson. This is as deplorable as Britain's failed tactics.

Throughout the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had a series of running battles with our EU partners over farm policy reform and the level of UK contributions. Relations became pretty difficult but never as desperate as this. Why? First, there was a grudging recognition that Mrs Thatcher had a case. Second, her tactics were better chosen. She selected her battlegrounds more carefully and took hostage large, inanimate issues - issues which other European governments wanted to resolve, but which mattered little to public opinion. Third, the remote prospect of a British Labour government was, at that time, even more unappetising to our partners than Mrs Thatcher. They knew they had to deal with the iron lady, or no one.

The tough line taken by the European Commission at the weekend, and many European governments yesterday, does not (yet) represent a turning away from Britain. It does represent a turning away from John Major. Until a few weeks ago, Continental politicians, if asked whether they were holding their breath for the coming of Tony Blair, would reply politely: "No. We are looking forward to the British election because we feel that whatever government emerges - Tory or Labour - would be freer to deal with Europe more constructively."

The beef war has changed all that. Every member state will deny it; but they are now damned if they are going to hand Mr Major the kind of beef triumph which could be electorally beneficial. Their tactics may also now be faulty. A continuing, or escalating, crisis over several months will, in any case, result in an election in a blaze of Union flags. If the Tories were to win such an election, it is possible to imagine a series of worsening showdowns with Europe leading to British marginalisation, even withdrawal. Mr Santer's decision to raise this issue is premature, and impolitic, but such fears are no longer entirely absurd.

So what now? The Government is evidently uncomfortable with its own campaign. It hoped its decision to release a couple of hostages would help the atmosphere in Luxembourg yesterday. It just made the whole thing look sillier. Why allow trade negotiations with Algeria but block criticism of Indonesia's behaviour in East Timor? What has any of it got to do with beef?

The next 10 days up to the Florence summit are critical. A slender hope still exists that something like a classic Euro-compromise can be found. Mr Major should explore the possibilities of the Dutch settlement. He has raised emotions so high that any compromise is bound to be lambasted by the Eurosceptics and a section of the Europhobic press. But it is time for the remaining Euro-sensible members of the Government to insist that sanity prevails.