Their Beef With EU Pushes Britons to Talk of Secession

Mad-cow crisis gives critics fuel to demand withdrawal from Europe

The nations of Western Europe are wrestling with Britain, which not only appears increasingly unhappy to be their partner - but also has started to debate pulling out of the European Union altogether.

The European Union's decision in March to slap a worldwide export ban on British beef was only the latest aspect of a developing crisis.

In the days before the June 21 EU summit in Florence, Italy, at which the beef ban will be discussed, influential voices in Britain were heard proclaiming the advantages of withdrawing from the organization it joined more than 23 years ago.

For Britons, the fact that the EU headquarters in Brussels can impose a ban on British beef, which it believes to be unhealthy, epitomizes the threat of EU membership: loss of national sovereignty.

And with further EU integration, such as by joining a single European currency, many are concerned that the erosion of British statehood will only increase.

On June 10, 40 senior members of Britain's ruling Conservative Party met to hear arguments for EU withdrawal. The next day, nearly one-third of the Conservative members of Parliament defied Prime Minister John Major by voting for a referendum on EU membership.

'Treason' by Thatcher?

Forty-eight hours later the prime minister was reportedly outraged that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a substantial cash donation to the European Foundation - a think tank dedicated to loosening Britain's ties with the EU. "This is treason," Mr. Major responded, according to his officials.

Patrick Minford, one of the government's team of economic advisers, argues that if the EU continues to integrate, Britain should "withdraw cooperation."

"In the longer term, we should work for a free-market Europe," he says. "If we fail, we will then be forced to contemplate a future outside Europe."

Meanwhile, Major, leading a party and a government seriously split on EU issues, is having to mobilize influential figures to make the case for Britain to stay in the 15-nation club.

Environment Secretary John Gummer said June 17 that pulling out of the EU would do "fundamental damage" to Britain. A week earlier, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke told international financiers that Britain had no choice but to stay in Europe.

He was followed by Sir Leon Brittan, a former senior minister in Margaret Thatcher's government and now a European Commissioner based in Brussels.

"Now is not the time for doubts and hesitation about our European vocation," Brittan told leading British industrialists. "Now is the time for us to make sure that British interests are at the top of the European agenda."

It is ironic that Major finds himself trying to argue a pro-European case at a time when his own ministers are following a policy of "noncooperation" with the EU in Brussels to retaliate against the export ban on British beef.

Since the policy was announced May 25, Britain has vetoed more than 70 decisions in the EU Council of Ministers, fueling the anger of Britain's EU partners by retaliating against the beef ban.

Most analysts point out that deep divisions in Britain about belonging to the EU are nothing new.

In 1975, when Britain was led by a Labour government, a fierce national debate ended with a referendum in which voters opted for staying in by a 2-to-1 margin.

Since then, however, particularly during the Thatcher years, it has been common for Britain to be at loggerheads with its partners.

The trouble with Maastricht

Four years ago, under Major's leadership, London signed the Maastricht Treaty on European integration. But it did so on condition that it secured "opt-outs" on two key provisions.

It refused to commit itself to a single European currency or to sign a convention aimed at safeguarding workers' rights.

Some Euroskeptics have begun arguing that Britain should seek withdrawal from the EU and negotiate the kind of free-trade agreement with Brussels that is currently enjoyed by Switzerland.

Political analyst Michael Gove notes that under this arrangement 63 percent of Swiss exports go to the EU, compared with 47 percent of Britain's. Withdrawal from the EU "need not be suicide," Mr. Gove wrote in the London Times.

Economic adviser Minford has argued that membership in the EU costs Britain about 10 billion ($15 billion) a year. About one-third of that is net contributions to the EU budget.

Major himself is trying to counter the apparently negative economic arguments by pointing out that if Britain were to quit the EU - or be forced out by other members that are angry about British resistance to integration - it would lose heavily in political influence on the Continent.

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