Not a lovely war as Major's plan to veto EU decisions starts to backfire

 

IT WAS a week of saying, no, non, nein, and nej to Europe. British ministers went to war with Brussels over the world wide beef ban and defiantly vetoed measures for which they themselves, ironically, had campaigned.

At last, the jingoistic British tabloids could hail the Prime Minister, Mr John Major, for standing up to Europe and proving Britain is not a soft touch. "Make no mistake," the Sun warned on Thursday, "this is war. European Commissioner Jacques Santer accuses Britain of deplorable behaviour because we had the temerity to stick a spanner in the Euroworks."

Tuesday was D-day, with the British government supposedly demonstrating that it meant business by vetoing any European decision in sight. However, within hours it was clear from the Brussels front line that Britain was not having a glorious war.

The irony of the situation was surely not lost on Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Aid, who had fought for many of the EU policies such as co-ordinating aid to the Third World and was now forced to vote against them. As the translated "non", "nein", "nej", came through the headphones, Baroness Chalker admitted: "I very much regret having to do this."

By midday Mr Roger Freeman, the Minister for Public Services who is also spearheading Mr Major's strategy of nonco-operation with Europe, confessed that a British victory was still nowhere in sight. Speaking in Brussels after blocking five decisions in the EU's internal market council, he admitted that the policy would only have a limited effect and that Britain may be fighting the beef war for several years to come as the process of ensuring British cattle are free of BSE "is going to take some time".

Worrying words indeed for Mr Major, particularly as the British tabloids and several of his own backbenchers have predicted that he will be "a goner" if he loses this war. Last night Mr James Cran, the Tory MP for Beverley, warned: "If John Major blinks the government is finished. We have to fight, there is no way back."

Although the Tory left have privately criticised the war, with one junior minister describing it as an "ineffective and potentially humiliating bluff", Mr Major can take comfort from two opinion polls published this week which reveal that the British people support an escalation of hostilities against Europe.

In another irony, British television has been screening The Poisoned Chalice, the story of Britain's relations with Europe, which climaxed this week with the account of that nice Mr Major taking over from the warlike Mrs Thatcher.

According to the NOP/Independent newspaper poll, published on Tuesday, 54 per cent of British people support disrupting EU business and 47 per cent believe if the beef ban is not lifted then Britain should retaliate by banning all imports from Germany. Herr Kohl and Monsieur Santer will also not be pleased to note that by the slightest of margins - 47 per cent to 43 per cent - the British public does not believe the country should withdraw from Europe if the ban is not lifted. These results are also echoed in a MORI/Times poll, published yesterday, which suggested that Britons are becoming increasingly opposed to closer integration with the EU.

Mr George Walden, the Tory MP who has threatened to bring the government down if it escalates the war, described the polls as "worrying" and called on those opposed to Mr Major's tactics to speak out.

However, the Foreign Secretary, Mr Malcolm Rifkind, appears confident that the "mad ban" will soon be lifted. Writing in yesterday's Sun, Mr Rifkind said he will be meeting European ministers next week to argue the case for British beef.

"It will be a time for plain talking. . . our case is strong and we re patting it forward not just in Britain's but in Europe's interest. Our campaign is not a sign that Britain is, as some claim, pulling down the shutters on the rest of Europe. On the contrary we have a massive role to play in the continent's future," he said.