Major's Big Beef Against EU: All Sizzle

Most Britons blame him for ban on cattle

Winston Churchill had World War II. Margaret Thatcher had the war in the Falklands Islands. And Prime Minister John Major now has the "Bovine War" to make him a potential hero to the British people.

Declaring an all-out political attack May 21 on the European Union, Mr. Major enacted a policy of "noncooperation" with the EU until it lifts its worldwide export ban on British beef. Major has effectively stonewalled EU action since last Thursday and even set up a "war cabinet" to direct the campaign.

The Iron Lady's military gamble in the south Atlantic 14 years ago ended in a famous victory and confirmed her popularity with the British electorate for nearly a decade. Yet her successor as British leader is not looking so triumphant.

Major's move was the "silly and cynical" action of a "petty-minded nationalist party," said a senior Conservative member of parliament over the weekend. George Walden, a former government minister, threatened to wipe out Major's House of Commons single-vote majority by resigning from the Conservative party.

To make matters worse for Major, Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission (the EU's executive branch), accused Major of "mismanagement" and of "triggering the crisis and panic in Europe."

The crisis, rooted in fears that meat from infected British cattle poses a health risk to humans, has devastated Europe's beef industry since March, and it has brought Major into open conflict with the EU capital in Brussels.

Douglas Hogg, his minister of agriculture, who has had the task of asking the EU to lift its beef ban, has become the target of barbed comments by government officials.

A senior Conservative source confirmed that Major had asked Mr. Hogg to stop wearing a large fedora hat on his futile journeys to Brussels because "he looks ridiculous."

The British public appears to be taking a similar view of the government's overall beef strategy, despite hopes by Conservative Party strategists that by wrapping himself in the Union Jack, the prime minister would boost the government's popularity.

An opinion poll conducted for the London Observer showed May 26 that, by a margin of 3 to 1, people thought the government, not the EU, was responsible for the beef crisis. Only 11 percent said the noncooperation policy would make them more likely to vote Conservative at the next general election.

By apparently fueling the resentment of Mr. Santer, Major is in danger of losing a potential ally in attempts to end the beef crisis. Last week Santer said that, as an initial step, he favored lifting the ban on by-products from British beef, such as tallow and gelatin. But Major told the House of Commons that he wanted a detailed timetable for lifting the entire ban.

Santer responded in a TV interview Sunday that he did not believe a timetable would be practical. His comment prompted angry responses by leading Conservatives. Santer's charge of British mismanagement of the crisis, said Sir Jerry Wiggin, chairman of the Commons agriculture committee, was "the pot calling the kettle black."

The current bitter mood has been reflected in mass-circulation tabloid newspapers, most of which accuse Germany of playing a leading part in trying to humiliate Britain.

Speaking out against the current mood, Sir Bryan Nicholson, president of the Confederation of British Industry, called it "a pungent atmosphere of romantic nationalism and churlish xenophobia." He added: "I sometimes wonder if there are some among us who have failed to notice that the war with Germany has ended."

He may have been speaking of the the Sun newspaper, which daily sells 4 million copies and last week said: "Never in the field of human conflict has so much beef been banned from so many by so few," recasting Churchill's famous words.

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