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Wednesday, 27 October, 1999, 18:33 GMT
Beef war threatens wider split with Europe
The beef war has highlighted political differences over Europe

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

If there is one issue that defines the political parties in Britain today it is their attitude towards Europe.

The next general election will almost certainly be fought over Europe and all the parties are eager to stake out their own individual battle grounds.

The eruption of the beef war - potentially the most damaging crisis to hit the EU since the original ban on British beef in 1996 - has suddenly thrown those differences into sharp contrast.

And the way the parties react to it will help determine Britain's future place within the EU.

The prime minister is desperate to ensure the crisis does not escalate to such an extent that it sees voters - incensed at the apparent flouting of EU laws by the French - flocking into the arms of the anti-Europeans.

That would hugely damage his pro-European policy and his plans to take Britain into the single currency early in the next Parliament.

Propaganda advantage

William Hague, however, believes the issue has handed him a major propaganda advantage and that his "in Europe but not run by Europe" slogan will attract more and more followers.

Tony Blair: Has insisted a ban would be illegal
And there is little doubt that the behaviour of the French government and its all-powerful farmers has infuriated huge numbers of voters.

Not for the first time they see what appears to be another country flouting the law in a calculated attempt to harm Britain's commercial interests, and the European Commission apparently doing nothing about it.

The longer the crisis is allowed to continue, the more chance there is that people will become disillusioned with the European project and, as a result, Mr Blair's policy.

The Brussels Commission, which will ultimately decide who is breaching the law, is already held in low esteem and its apparent slowness to act over the crisis has further damaged its reputation.

Meanwhile all the anti-European forces in the political parties and the media are having a heyday, claiming the crisis proves their claims that Brussels in another arm of the French government and can never be relied upon to act in Britain's interests.

Illegal embargo

The government's initial response did little to reassure people. It first appeared that the prime minister was ready to impose a ban on the import of French meat.

But the line later changed and Mr Blair insisted that it would be illegal to impose such an embargo.

That, he argued, is exactly what Britain was complaining about the French doing over their continuing ban on beef exports.

Meanwhile ministers, including the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, have been declaring that - while they have no intention of imposing an illegal ban on French produce - they will not touch French food.

Finally, the agreed line is that a ban on French produce would be illegal and that the Commission must be relied upon to decide the merits of the individual cases.

The great fear, however, is that by the time the Commission gets around to resolving the issues public opinion in Britain will have turned decisively against it.

And that could have a dramatic effect on Labour's policy of closer integration with the union
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See also:
26 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
Hague urges French meat ban
27 Oct 99 |  UK
Buy British, urge UK farmers
19 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
Leaders clash on Europe
25 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
UK rejects French meat ban

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