Bully and his beef

May 31, 1996

Higher and further education need to worry about the Government's outbreak of Europhobia. Attempting to bully the governments of member states by fouling up the work of the Commission in Brussels is illogical. Pretending that the ban on beef is some wicked and ill-informed plot is insulting. Banging on about legality and rules will do nothing to persuade the public across Europe - or indeed America where British beef has been banned much longer - that beef is safe.

Let us hope the Government will send plenty of representatives to next week's Environmental Risk conference and in a mood to listen not to hector. They could learn a lot and have manifestly a lot to learn. They may, for example, pick up some ideas for handling the current scare over baby milk before they make that worse than they already have. Whether they can, at this late stage, also find a way of climbing down from their absurd xenophobic phony war over beef is another matter.

Climbing down is important. There is little likelihood, for all the bluster and bullying, that the beef ban will be lifted while the British government is so evidently unwilling to set about systematically purging British beef herds of BSE and while the scientific evidence on possible transmission from cows to people remains so uncertain. The ban is likely to last some time, so therefore will the thwarting of European business.

With little prospect of quick success from a politically disreputable attempt to solve domestic problems by drumming up a foreign war and beef problems by trying to force it down unwilling throats, the Government is inviting enormous damage over many months.

Inward investment by companies which see Britain as the most attractive production centre in Europe could, for example, be damaged by the fear that collective insanity may be about to sweep the country out of Europe altogether - or indeed get it expelled.

More directly, higher and further education are large beneficiaries from the many European community programmes designed to increase education, training and research collaboration; to foster the emergence of a new Euro-generation whose members are familiar with each others' customs, countries and languages; and to club together to provide major research facilities which individual countries could not afford. Scientists, already hard pressed, will not thank a government which gets them excluded from CERN particle physics laboratory, the European Space Agency and other collaborative ventures. Students and staff will not be amused to find the possibilities for exchange study in Europe curtailed. Institutions which have managed to mitigate underfunding at home by becoming adept at winning bids for European research and social fund money could find themselves in serious difficulties if the commission were minded to play a tit-for-tat game. Why should it not? Non-cooperation cuts both ways.

It is good news then that the left of the Conservative party is at last mobilising to fight the Eurosceptics, whose power and influence over the prime minister, John Major, has grown out of all proportion to their numbers as his majority has dwindled.

It is high time the other wing of the Conservative party started giving him a hard time too, since bullying seems to be the tactic Mr Major understands best. He has succumbed to it from the Eurosceptics. He has himself resorted to it in his policy towards Europe rather than take on the more responsible but more difficult task of sorting out the structural weakness in his own government's position vis-a-vis the agricultural industries. He cannot be surprised if he now gets bullied by the left of his own party also.

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