Mad cows and Englishmen: German concern over British beef is a public health issue, not a political ploy, argues Steve Crawshaw

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The Independent Online
The way Britain sees it, Bonn's battle of the beef - which finally climaxed in Brussels yesterday when the EU rejected Germany's call for a ban on British exports - has more to do with trade wars and election year politics than concerns with public health. In short, Germany does not want British beef because its own farmers' livelihoods would be put at risk. Britain emphasises, too, that any unilateral ban by Germany would be against European rules.

The reactions of the German government may be seen as cautious and right, or panicky and wrong. One thing, however, is clear. The British agriculture minister, Gillian Shephard, is mistaken when she talks of a 'scaremongering' campaign in the German media. The dispute over BSE, or 'mad cow disease', and the alleged dangers of British beef, have not featured prominently on the domestic German agenda. In the words of one official: 'The scientific background is so complicated that people were pleased to avoid the subject.'

It was Germany's combative health minister, Horst Seehofer, who helped to put the subject back on the agenda at the end of last year. The German government argues that until we have a better understanding of BSE - bovine spongiform encephalopathy - it is essential to err on the side of caution.

In Mr Seehofer's words: 'We cannot live by the slogan 'Because there is no scientific knowledge, we don't need to act'.' He suggests that BSE is an 'acid test' for Europe and points out that, at a time when too little was understood about Aids, mistakes were made. 'Today we know that with these lethal diseases, we cannot act too soon. We must exclude possible risks for people across Europe. A catastrophe such as we saw with Aids would be a declaration of bankruptcy for health protection in a united Europe.'

In Mr Seehofer's words the 'possibility cannot be excluded' that BSE can be transferred to humans. This, he says, is reason enough for a ban. Pure hype, say the British, who point to all the precautions that have been introduced since the dangers of BSE became known.

Certainly Mr Seehofer is eager to embrace high-profile causes. In a scandal involving Aids-infected blood which exploded at the end of last year, he angered some doctors with his dramatic and absolutist line on the need to clamp down.

But although Mr Seehofer may be accused of grandstanding, the proposed beef ban has not become a party political issue. Rather, the criticism from the opposition Social Democrats is that Mr Seehofer failed to act earlier. Antje-Marie Steen, the SPD health spokesperson, has used similar language to Mr Seehofer himself, saying: 'We must avoid repeating the fatal mistakes of the HIV catastrophe.'

There have been two crucial triggers for the toughening of the German stance against the UK. In December 1993 the results of an international conference in Berlin led the health ministry to argue that the dangers were greater than had been perceived. Then, last month, a second case of BSE became known in Germany, in a cow imported from the UK.

The scientific consensus remains that there is no clear link between the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease contracted by 16-year-old Vicky Rimmer, whose case was recently highlighted in British headlines, and BSE. None the less, both the German government and the opposition argue that it is impossible to be too careful.

The UK argues that enough precautions have been taken to ensure that British beef is entirely safe - and yesterday's decision in Brussels, in which Germany was completely isolated, appears to confirm this view. The European Commission had already made it clear that it was happy with the measures introduced by Britain to prevent the spread of BSE. But German officials argue that it will be years before a final judgement can be made on whether the British 'much ado about nothing' or the German 'better safe than sorry' policy is more appropriate.

So far, at least, the issue has in any case not set Germany alight - though that may yet change following yesterday's decision. The front pages have instead been filled with a quite separate Brussels ban, which has led to nationwide protests and indignation.

The strict imposition of European Union rules has meant the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of pigs - above all, in the north-western state of Lower Saxony - in order to prevent the spread of swine fever. Protesting farmers marched with slogans such as 'End the EC madness': this in a country which has worn its pro-European sympathies prominently on its sleeve. Such obvious anti-Brussels feeling was new, and embarrassing to the government.

That indignation against Brussels has, however, at least partially given way in recent days and weeks to anger against those farmers who have sought to dodge the EU ban. The Bonn government insisted on regional implementation of the EU ruling, saying that any rebellion would only backfire. The federal agriculture minister, Jochen Borchert, pointed out: 'If we didn't put the EU ruling into effect (in Lower Saxony), then we would have faced the danger of a nationwide ban.'

The government announced that there would be hefty fines - up to pounds 20,000 - for anyone attempting to smuggle pigs out of Lower Saxony into other regions to avoid the clampdown. When it comes to compliance with the Brussels rules, Bonn is keen to remain the good boy in class.

On the question of beef the German attitudes may be less malicious and calculating than London appears to believe. Mrs Shephard complains that Germany has already dramatically reduced its imports of British beef in the past two years. The accusatory word 'protectionism' hangs ominously in the air, only months after the final ratification of Maastricht. 'Absolutism' would perhaps be closer to the mark.

The German absolutism may be unjustified. But that does not mean it is a mere political ploy. There are few votes to be won from a trade dispute with an EU partner, in a country where - in sharp contrast to Britain - the government is almost pathologically desperate to reaffirm its enthusiasm for EU solidarity. Thus, when German politicians talk about mad cows, they are talking, above all, about mad cows. On this occasion at least, the issue is not the re-election chances of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

(Photograph omitted)