Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, failed last night in his first concerted attempt to persuade Europe to lift its export ban on British beef, in return for a new package of government measures to eradicate BSE.
In an emergency meeting of European farm ministers in Luxembourg, Mr Hogg proposed the phased slaughter and incineration of at least four million elderly cattle, and he called on the European Union to pay 80 per cent of the bill, leaving 20 per cent to be paid by Britain.
The Government package unveiled yesterday would involve destroying all dairy cattle over 30 months old, once they had reached the end of their useful life. The cost of such a programme, aimed at removing such high risk cattle from the food chain, could reach pounds 3.7bn over six years.
However, the British proposals fell short of Europe's demands for an absolute guarantee that BSE would be eliminated from the British herds. "We will lift the embargo when we have a total guarantee we have no risk," said Philippe Vasseur, the French Agriculture Minister.
Furthermore, several ministers questioned whether the EU should foot such a large part of the bill, with German sources saying that Britain should pay at least 30 per cent of the costs. The country's agriculture minister, Jochen Borchert, complained during a break in the negotiations, which ran into the night, that Britain had urged Europe to pay as "little as possible" to Germany during an outbreak of swine fever there in 1994.
Sources in Brussels said it would be weeks before the ban would be lifted, and would not be agreed until the European Veterinary Committee was satisfied. it meets today in Brussels to examine the British proposals. European Commission officials were still holding out the chance of a deal to lift the ban later in the week, should Britain produce more details of its eradication plans.
As the hard bargaining continued late into the night, there were signs that the European ministers wanted a more radical plan for slaughter of animals.
European ministers expressed fears that BSE could be in younger cattle and wanted entire herds of productive dairy cattle slaughtered and the meat incinerated. That could be a disaster for British farmers unless they are fully compensated.
Ministers are seeking new ways of identifying BSE in cattle in order to cull herds positively identified with BSE to cut down the costs of a slaughter programme. John Major, the Prime Minister, told the Commons that Britain was looking at "novel ways of getting the right beasts".
There was growing anger among Tory MPs last night at the refusal of the EU partners to agree to the lifting of the ban. The plan proposed by Britain entails the building of more incinerators to meet the workload. Some meat may have to be cold stored until it can be burned.
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