LONDON — Britain's dispute with its European Union partners - ostensibly about a worldwide ban on sales of British beef - is fast escalating into a full-blown feud about who calls the shots on national policy in Europe.
After British Farm Minister Douglas Hogg again failed to persuade his fellow farm ministers in Brussels to lift the two-month ban, he returned to the House of Commons to make an emergency statement May 21. He warned Parliament members (MPs) of "a period of very great difficulty" for Britain's relations with the European Union.
Earlier, Home Secretary Michael Howard, a senior Cabinet member noted for his skepticism over European unity, said Britain now has to "review all the options" - a phrase widely interpreted in government circles as a veiled threat of retaliation against the EU.
Parliament member Graham Riddick urged Prime Minister John Major to "suspend all payments to the EU" until Brussels, the EU headquarters, "comes to its senses."
Like other member states, Britain contributes large sums to the EU budget. Mr. Riddick and a growing number of Conservative politicians claim the EU is arrogating the right to take decisions against British interests.
"Playing the game like English gentlemen has failed," Riddick says. "It is time we took the gloves off."
The "game" began in March when the London government said some British beef cattle may have passed a brain disease on to humans. The announcement prompted the EU to order an immediate and total ban on the export of British beef and beef derivatives worldwide.
Since then Britain has tried to persuade the EU that it has taken all measures necessary to deal with the problem.
But when Mr. Hogg told EU farm ministers on May 20 that Britain was willing to slaughter 80,000 cattle (double a previously proposed figure), the offer was flatly rejected. Germany and several of its neighbors argued that tougher measures were needed to restore confidence in Europe's beef market.
Mr. Major is finding himself under pressure from several directions: The EU insists that Britain must do more to ensure the quality of British beef, while some British Conservatives say Major must stand firm. Meanwhile, British farmers say they are drifting toward bankruptcy, and the opposition Labour Party is squeezing maximum political advantage from the government's embarrassment.
The government was paying the price for allowing cattle to become infected some years ago and "doing nothing about it," said Labour's farm spokesman Gavin Strang May 21.
Major says he will resist pressure to suspend payments because it would be unlawful. But he finds himself enmeshed in a much larger argument.
The EU claims it has the right to order a worldwide ban on British beef sales. Britain refuses to accept this and has begun an action for redress in the European Court of Justice.
Major was set to make a statement May 21 that Downing Street officials said would be "a shot across the bows of our European partners." Yet Britain is bound under EU voting rules to accept the majority view of its EU partners. The Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg joined Germany in blocking any relaxation of the ban May 20.
Major's most urgent problem is having to cope with the arguments of his own Conservatives who say the EU has no right to push Britain around. The government-supporting Daily Mail greeted the news that Hogg had once more failed to budge his EU colleagues with the headline: "Humiliation for Britain."
The story began: "Britain was kicked in the teeth by her European partners." Large sections of the media reflected the same mood of growing disenchantment with the EU stand. The crisis is starting to look dangerous for Major's government, which has a wafer-thin majority in the House of Commons.