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The Beef War Overshadows Florence EU Summit

  • Stuart Parrott



London, June 21 (RFE/RL) - British Prime Minister John Major is under attack from all sides as he takes part in today's EU summit in Florence because of what his critics say is his clumsy handling of the "beef war" with his European partners.

Britain is at odds with its 14 EU allies over how to tackle the problem of British cattle at risk from BSE -- bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a condition known as Mad Cow disease that has been linked to a rare but fatal brain disease among humans. In an attempt to head off a showdown in Florence, the Major government this week bowed to German and French pressure to destroy tens of thousands of additional cattle in a bid to eradicate the disease. The British made the concessions because it wants the EU to set a timetable for a gradual lifting of its ban on exports of British beef. Major has tried to pressure his European partners to fix a firm timetable by waging a month-long campaign of non-cooperation under which Britain has vetoed almost 100 key EU decisions and proposals. But the strategy has backfired. Britain's show of obduracy has merely angered its 14 partners who say Britain has again marginalised itself within the EU and exposed itself as a "reluctant European." In Germany, where the BSE crisis has set off near-hysteria (sales of non-British beef are one-third below last year), Foreign Ministry official Werner Hoyer said the British approach threatened the great European projects favored by Bonn -- including monetary union and enlargement. France is also angry because it claims Britain continued to export tainted animal feed after banning it at home. Le Monde newspaper condemned the feed sales as "an industrial crime". France has reported 19 cases of Mad Cow Disease compared with 160,000 cases in Britain. Britain banned the use of minced-up remains of cattle in animal feeds in 1988 after scientists concluded that this was the cause of BSE. EU commission president Jacques Santer has said the "beef war" may cause lasting damage to the cause of European unity. He is concerned about the "xenophobic" anti-European propaganda in the British Press and the anti-British atmosphere in the continental media. At home, Major is under fire from Euro-sceptics in his ruling conservative party who cite the beef ban, and new Brussels plans to curb Britain's fishing fleets, as justification for rethinking EU membership. Major is also under attack by pro-Europeans for trying to pressure the EU with "an unworkable policy of non-cooperation only to weakly capitulate under pressure this week." 'Surrender by Britain on beef ban' as a front-page headline in the Daily Telegraph put it. Under a compromise expected to go before the Florence summit today or tomorrow, Britain is expected to agree to destroy up to 67,000 more cattle said to be at special risk of developing Mad Cow Disease. British farmers reacted with fury. The new cull comes on top of plans to burn all British cattle older than 30 months, a program that will lead to the destruction of one million animals in the next year, and drive many farmers into bankruptcy. The cost to the taxpayer will be huge. The slaughtering program is already under way. Plans to dump the slaughtered cattle at sea were abandoned on environmental grounds, and they are now being minced up and dumped at disused military bases. A trial experiment to burn carcases in power stations has begun. In the run-up to the Florence summit, scientists said the threat of an epidemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the illness thought to be caused by eating BSE-infected beef, has receded. Forty-six suspected cases have been reported in Britain this year. But it was also said that the BSE crisis could last for five years.

As meets his European colleagues, the beleagured John Major can take no comfort from either prediction.

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