EU Eases Restriction On Beef Byproducts

BRUSSELS -- In a major concession, the European Union decided Wednesday to relax the export ban on British beef. But the EU's top official warned the mad cow crisis would worsen if Britain did not stop disrupting EU business.

EU Commission President Jacques Santer announced a relaxation of the ban to exempt three cattle-derived products -- bull semen, beef fat and beef-based gelatin.

In return, he insisted, Britain should end its "absurd" policy of blocking European Union business. If not, a lifting of the overall ban could be delayed.

Santer said he "expects from the United Kingdom an immediate de-escalation of its confrontational stance. Without such a de-escalation, the ultimate lifting of the embargo would be seriously affected."

The easing of the ban on the products was a key British aim. But British officials said recently the relaxation would not, by itself, lead London to drop its policy of obstructing EU business.

Britain also demands agreement on a step-by-step plan to remove the ban completely before it ends its pressure tactics that have seen Britain veto some 40 EU decisions over the past two weeks.

In a significant hardening of position, Santer hinted the European Commission, the EU's executive agency, may take legal action against Britain for infringing the Union's founding treaty.

He referred to article five of the Maastricht Treaty which forbids nations from action that "could jeopardize the attainment of the objectives" of the EU.

Commission spokesman Joao Vale de Almeida denied Santer was threatening Britain, but he said the 20-member commission decided unanimously "to raise the stakes" in the dispute with London.

Officials said the tougher stance was adopted after eight of the 20 EU commissioners initially opposed the partial lifting of the ban. Despite the decision to do that, it could take weeks before Britain can resume exports of the three products.

The plan approved by the commission requires Britain to enforce a range of new production methods and strict licensing procedures for companies to be allowed to export their goods.

And German officials have said they may maintain a unilateral ban on the products whatever the EU decides. British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind warned against such a move during a visit to Bonn as part of a tour of EU capitals in an effort to win support for Britain's aims.

"It is crucially important that the law is obeyed, even if one does not like the law," Rifkind told reporters after meeting German officials.

The commission was left to decide about the three cattle products after agriculture officials from EU nations failed repeatedly to resolve the issue.

At a meeting of the 15 farm ministers Monday in Luxembourg, nine nations backed a proposal to loosen the ban.

But under complicated EU voting rules, that majority was not enough to make a final decision and the matter was referred to the commission.

Officials said the matter was settled after a discussion of how the commission should respond to Britain's tactics.