Brexit backstop BSE Mad Cow Disease
European Union

Brexit backstop and beef: if the EU wasn’t faithful over BSE, how can we trust them with our liberty?

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much:
and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much
‘ (Lk 16:10).

If you want to know what someone will do with a lot, see how they handle a little. Before you hand someone a farm of livestock to tend, make sure their pet rabbit is fed and watered. Before you consecrate someone a bishop, consider how they nurtured their own family. If you want to gauge if a politician will keep his promises, find out how they honour their marriage vows. If you’re notoriously lazy or blasé in editing a national magazine, you’re not likely to be an energetic or diligent minister of state. The steward who is faithful and trustworthy in the world’s small things is more likely to be faithful and trustworthy with God’s things.

Unwise stewards become unjust masters, and dishonest labourers make corrupt managers. Children of light need to discern wisely, for a man that looks only to himself and his own possessions is not likely to be made benevolent or hospitable by career advancement.

If the European Union was deceitful, uncertain and self-serving in its treatment of John Major, how can Theresa May be so absolutely certain that they will be faithful, reasonable and generous in the way they regard the future interests of the United Kingdom?

During the 1980s the UK became increasingly aware that some of its cattle were infected by ‘Mad Cow Disease’ (BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy]), which caused head tremors, weight loss and a lack of coordination in the animals. It was thought to have been caused by feeding herbivores meat and bone meal (ie dead sheep), so this practice was banned and a programme of slaughter was announced. The EU subsequently banned the export of British cattle to the Continent because it wasn’t at all clear that the consumption of BSE-infected cows might not cause CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) in humans. Things eventually calmed down and confidence began to return, at least in the domestic market. In 1990 the Agriculture Minister John Gummer assured the nation (and attempted to reassure the EU) that British beef was completely safe by famously feeding a burger to his four-year-old daughter on live television to prove the point.

In 1992 BSE reached its peak with 100,000 conformed cases. By 1995 four people had caught CJD and died. In 1996 the Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell announced a probable link between BSE and CJD, after which the EU imposed a world-wide ban on all British beef exports (including tallow, gelatine and semen). This was enacted under QMV (Qualified Majority Vote): the UK had no veto. In order to bring remedy and effect a degree of control, the Government introduced a programme of mass slaughter of all cattle over 30 months old: hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy calves were summarily shot in the head and burned. There was no exception and no appeal. Even if you’d honoured natural law and reared your herbivores on nothing but grass and leaves, they had to die.

John Major was given assurances by EU leaders that the export ban would be incrementally lifted as Britain’s herds were culled. It is estimated that around a million animals were slaughtered and incinerated as a consequence of this agreement, but the EU was reluctant to honour its assurances and lift the ban. Months of reluctance became years of inaction. As John Redwood observed at the time:

There is no point in killing cows that we think should not be killed unless that action gets the beef ban lifted. If there is no prospect of the ban being lifted, the best we can do is to look after our own farmers and domestic market and there is every reason for not killing all these cows unnecessarily. We should kill that number which our own scientific advice and judgment says is correct.

In an act of desperation, generated by chronic frustration with what John Major saw as bad faith and duplicity on the part of the EU, the UK Government instituted a policy of non-cooperation in the European Union Council of Ministers. The Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons:

I have to tell the House that, without progress towards lifting the ban, we cannot be expected to co-operate normally on other Community business.

I say this with great reluctance, but the European Union operates through good will. If we do not benefit from good will from partners, clearly we cannot reciprocate. Progress will not be possible in the intergovernmental conference or elsewhere until we have agreement on lifting the ban on beef derivatives and a clear framework in place leading to lifting of the wider ban.

We will raise the question of the ban at all Councils, including the Foreign Affairs Council. If necessary, we shall seek special Councils. I shall make it clear that I expect agreement on how to deal with those problems to be behind us by the time the European Council meets in Florence on 21 and 22 June. If it is not, the Florence meeting is bound to be dominated by the issue. It could not proceed with our normal co-operation unless it faced up to the crisis of confidence affecting not only consumers but also Governments throughout Europe.

That is not how I wish to do business in Europe – but I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with the clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, of common sense and of Britain’s national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiations; but if that is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us and the political means at our disposal.

He had earlier told the House that he regarded the EU’s actions “as a wilful disregard of Britain’s interests, and, in some cases, a breach of faith”. A House of Commons Research Paper explains wider perceptions of EU motives:

The unwillingness of some influential EU member states to lift the ban has led some British politicians and farmers to suspect that this was not (or no longer) an issue of health, but an attempt by other EU member states to eliminate a major competitor in the European beef market. There were calls for retaliatory action such as unilateral bans on products from other member states or the withdrawal of contributions to the EU budget, even if this incurred the payment of interest. The latter was ruled out by the Prime Minister on grounds of illegality.


John Major’s policy of non-cooperation consisted of vetoing everything that could be vetoed, blocking everything that could be blocked, and obstructing everything that could be obstructed – whatever it related to. It needs to be remembered that he was the pro-EU Prime Minister who had just delivered the Maastricht Treaty, and this is how he was repaid by his EU partners. Out of sheer exasperation with their manifest bad faith and duplicity for suspected market advantage, John Major’s government impeded and intercepted whatever “EC legislative instruments, decisions, directives and regulations, non-binding acts such as recommendations and resolutions, agreements on work programmes, agreements with third countries and intergovernmental measures” it could.

This wasn’t, of course, the first time the UK Government had been forced to use strong-arm tactics in order to secure justice. In 1983, mindful of the UK’s inbuilt financial disadvantage under the EC’s redistributive policies, and frustrated her colleagues’ disinclination to remedy the UK’s disproportionate contribution to the EC budget, Margaret Thatcher ordered the withholding of a proportion of the UK’s monthly contribution in order to secure greater equity in the VAT base. This led to what became known as the ‘UK rebate‘.

John Major could badger and Margaret Thatcher could swing her handbag because they had seats at the table. In fact, the UK had seats at quite a lot of tables. They both learned that sometimes the only way to secure national justice in Brussels was to counter bad faith with antagonism and obstruction.

If the EU/UK ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ is approved by the House of Commons today, the way is paved for the UK to leave the EU at 11.00pm on 29 March, to be followed by a transition period towards a comprehensive trade deal. NB The ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ is not ‘The Deal’: those calling for a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ based on ‘informed consent’ because “we now know what Brexit looks like” never address this point: the full deal will only be known when the transition period concludes on 31st December 2020 (though it may be extended by one or two years). If that deadline is not met (or there is no agreement for it to be extended), the whole UK enters what is called the ‘Backstop’.

This ‘Backstop’ was designed to uphold the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring there is no return to a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Such an occurrence, it is averred, could lead to the return of IRA terrorism. But once the UK enters this Backstop, there is no unilateral escape. That is to say, if there is no trade agreement by 1st January 2021, and no agreement to extend the transition period (during which the UK would apply all known [and as yet unknown] EU regulations and is liable for all known [and as yet unknown] EU trade tariffs), the UK would become a satellite of the EU until the EU determines we may leave. Parliamentary sovereignty would be negated; the people’s liberty would be nullified. No general election or referendum could alter the situation: we would have paid £39billion to become a vassal state. An anonymous civil servant observes:

The backstop is intended to be inescapable. It prepares Britain for the final destination set out in the political declaration, as a permanent satellite state of the EU. By which time, of course, it is doubtless hoped that we will be so fed up with our vassalage that we decide to rejoin the EU as a full member – with greatly increased budget contributions and a whole swathe of new EU law to obey. The United States of Europe will have taken shape during our “wilderness years” using our money (“Britgeld” seems to be an appropriate term), but without our political input. No taxation without representation? What a joke.

Not only does the backstop carve out Northern Ireland as an EU province and set a border in the Irish Sea, it creates a partial “customs union” that requires us to implement EU trade tariffs and policy with no decision-making powers. Under highly restrictive “non-regression clauses”, the UK also agrees to implement all EU environmental, competition, state aid and tax harmonisation laws, with the unelected Joint Committee and the ECJ once again able to punish us for any perceived backsliding. British farmers will be locked into a subsidy regime well below support received by EU27 farmers, who nevertheless retain tariff-free access to the UK. British agriculture would be decimated. It means we could not support British businesses, give ourselves a competitive edge in new technologies where we excel, strike independent trade deals or diverge in key policy areas such as goods regulations and tax. Free EU access to UK fisheries is set down as a marker for negotiation in the future “deal”.

The EU might express hope and optimism that the Backstop would not be needed, but their aspirations are vacuous: nothing supersedes the Withdrawal Agreement; nothing else is legally binding. Nor would those who succeed Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker be bound by any letters of good faith. Once in the Backstop, we would have to apply EU laws and implement EU tariffs without any representation on those bodies which make those laws or set those tariffs. No matter how inappropriate or unjust we may consider them, and no matter how exasperated a future prime minister might become, no amount of badgering or handbagging could change a thing. The UK would no longer be able to veto, block or obstruct anything: British sovereignty will have been removed.

With his characteristic acuity, John Redwood asks:

Given that the EU intends to take huge sums of money & powers off us in return for just 21 or 45 months of more talks & massive uncertainty, why should we ever believe the EU would give us a good deal when they pocket all that they want up front?

Why would the EU treat the UK fairly over Brexit when they did not do so over beef or the budget? How can we trust them with the entire future of British liberty and democracy when they have already shown “a wilful disregard of Britain’s interests, and, in some cases, a breach of faith”?

Ye shall know them by their fruits…