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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Summit Shifts Agenda, Pledges Britain Aid

TURIN, Italy -- Britain won a pledge of "substantial" European Union funding Friday to help it overcome an EU ban on its beef exports that has caused prices to crash both in Britain and on the continent.

A one-day EU summit yielded "complete understanding for and total solidarity with" Britain, said Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini.

He said the EU would provide unspecified funding to help stave off a collapse of Britain's beef sector and to restore consumer confidence.

European Commission President Jacques Santer said after the summit that no amount had been fixed yet but "it will be a substantial effort ... in financial terms that can be spread across a number of years."

It will be "contingent" on measures Britain will develop to eradicate the so-called "mad cow" disease.

"This is not a British problem. It is a European problem," Dini told a joint news conference with Santer.

At the summit, British Prime Minister John Major told his 14 EU counterparts the EU ban, imposed last Wednesday on worldwide British beef exports, had escalated from a British problem into an EU-wide consumer confidence crisis.

"I look to my partners to contribute to finding a European solution," he said.

The comment cast a shadow over a summit whose key aim was to launch a year-long debate on changing the union's founding treaty and prepare the EU for a dozen new members.

But that topic became secondary Friday as Major appealed for help from the EU here and Douglas Hogg, his agriculture minister, consulted with EU officials in Brussels, Belgium.

On Thursday, Britain took the first steps to restore quickly evaporating public confidence in British beef by restricting its sale and imposing stricter controls on farm animals. It also announced compensation for farmers.

Britain set off a health scare March 20 when it acknowledged there may be a link between mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and a new strain of a deadly human ailment, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Previously it had denied that such link existed.

Dini, Santer and French President Jacques Chirac complained of irresponsible media reporting about mad cow disease. Chirac spoke of "irresponsible [reporting designed] only to sell newspapers."

"Indeed, panic and hysteria has been created," said Dini. He added there was no firm scientific proof that mad cow disease can transfer to humans. The EU ban on beef exports from Britain has caused beef prices to tumble there but also on the continent -- by as much as 60 percent -- as consumers massively turned away from the meat.

EU Agriculture ministers are to meet in an emergency session in Luxembourg on Monday.

Santer has plans to save as much as $5.1 billion in farm spending over the next three years. But, his spokesman, Klaus van der Pas, cautioned reporters, "Don't jump to the conclusion" that money could be diverted to help Britain.

Yet Chirac raised that possibility. "We have the good fortune to have a surplus in the agriculture budget," he told a news conference.

Ridding Britain of mad cow disease will be costly. Preliminary estimates start at $4 billion and shoot up, depending on the number of cattle that will be slaughtered and burned.

The EU summit was scheduled long before the beef crisis emerged. It launched a year-long debate about changing the EU's founding treaty.

That endeavor is bound to sharpen differences over the speed and scope of the next stage of Western Europe's economic and political integration.

The reform conference is a series of EU foreign ministers meetings. The first opened here immediately after the summit.

The reform conference must yield changes to the EU's founding treaty to prevent the trade bloc from drowning in red tape after it takes in more members. The EU's enlargement "represents a historic mission and a great opportunity for Europe [but] is also a challenge," the EU leaders said in a final statement.

What is at stake is the scope of the changes. EU housekeeping rules date from the late 1950s when there were six members. Now there are 15 and the EU is looking at adding 12 more over the next decade.