Small war over: Britain damaged again

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 1996, 12:00am


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SO the great beef war is over. Last week will go down not only as the time when England regained some of its pride on the football field, but as the date when the heads of the governments of Western European solemnly discussed culling cows, and came up with the Compromise of Florence.

The agreement reached at the weekend ends three months of diplomatic warfare during which London had obstructed more than 80 pieces of European Union legislation in retaliation for the banning of its beef exports. It commits Britain to tougher measures to eradicate Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - 'mad cow disease' - from its herds, notably by killing up to 67,000 cattle in addition to the 80,000 already marked for destruction.

Britain will also halt the use of meat and bone-meal in animal feed. In return for which, mainland European countries agreed to a phased lifting of their ban on British beef, but without setting out any timetable. Britain will also probably be free to sell its beef outside Europe to any countries which want it. Mr Major naturally hailed the deal, but it is open to question how much he really achieved beyond defusing Britain's most explosive row with its partners since the era when Margaret Thatcher battled to get a better deal for Britain in Europe.

The Foreign Secretary may express his delight with the outcome, but the great patriotic campaign launched by his Prime Minister has ended, as the Daily Mail put it yesterday, 'not with a bang, but a whimper'.

What makes matters all the more desperate for the Prime Minister is that the depth of the crisis was of Britain's making - from the hysterical tone of the tabloid press to those ridiculous days when, pursuing its policy of non-co-operation, Britain both sabotaged measures to grant aid to poor countries and stopped moves to reduce bureaucratic red tape.

As so often in dealing with Europe, Britain's policy was dictated by the internal splits in the Conservative Party: to preserve his precarious position in parliament, Mr Major has, in effect, handed over the reins to the Eurosceptics. Not daring to stand up to them, he allows himself to be seduced into seemingly tough posturing which only leaves him looking all the weaker when the inevitable climb-down follows, as it did at the Florence summit. His lack of resolution is all the more striking when contrasted with the much more straightforward position on Europe set out by his likely successor in Downing Street, Tony Blair, on a visit to Germany last week during which he pitched Labour's tent much closer to the continental partners than any Tory would dare to do.

That is not to say that all the right was on one side in this dispute. European rows are rarely clear-cut affairs, and invariably end in fudgy compromises. But by pitching the stakes far too high with his policy of bringing European business in general to a halt while the dispute continued, the Prime Minister has done the country more harm than he seems to realise.

He has further alienated Britain's partners on the mainland of Europe, and, in some quarters, made Britain an object of bemusement if not ridicule. At home, he has managed to whip up the anti-European feelings on the right of his party and given national xenophobia another field day. With this fresh experience of how easy it is to roll Mr Major over, they will not hesitate to bring the nationalistic guns to bear at the next excuse from Brussels.

The ultimate irony is that yesterday's agreement is what other European nations had been asking for in the first place. Given Mr Major's approach, that hardly matters. The relationship with Europe is one of two or three key questions in Britain today, but it has been reduced to the plaything of nationalist factions in a party that fears it is heading for an overwhelming electoral defeat within the next 10 months.

(This has some significance for Hong Kong, too, for the remaining year under British rule: what role does the territory want London to play in its relationship with the European Union? The answer, increasingly, is as little as possible. Business here, like business in Britain, can only despair of what ministers in Westminster are doing.) In the days when he spoke of Britain being at the heart of Europe, Mr Major was not just talking sense, but was also recognising the necessity of playing a full European role. With the beef war, he has moved his country a bit nearer the periphery, and sullied its reputation. If he had won, victory might have been an excuse; having at best drawn, but more probably lost, he has considerably less cause than England's footballers to remember this European month with pleasure for his penalties have proved a lot less productive.