COMMENT: My beef with the French: not only is this ban gutless, but it's against your interests

TONY BLAIR has every reason to feel betrayed by his friend Lionel Jospin.

The Government handled the beef crisis with enormous common sense and courage, negotiating patiently with the French in the face of mass hysteria and calculated, Europhobic provocation in Britain. In return, Mr Blair has received an act of short-sighted gutlessness from Paris - just the kind of narrow, nationalistic act that would have been hailed as a triumph by the Daily Mail if the countries' roles had been reversed.

French ministers said in private yesterday that they had no choice. An independent committee of scientists had, once again, declared British beef exports to be risky. Politically and legally, they said, it would have been suicidal to have ignored this advice and lifted the ban. Legally? Recent manslaughter charges against ministers and officials who failed to prevent HIV-infected blood entering French blood banks in the Eighties jolted French public officials. Fear of similar actions against today's ministers, 10 years or 15 years down the road, certainly played a part in their obstinacy.

Politically? More than 80 per cent of French people oppose British beef imports; the centre-right opposition parties were preparing to have some fun at Jospin's expense if the ban had been lifted. The Communists and Greens within the Jospin coalition opposed British beef imports. There was no domestic gain from scrapping the embargo and plenty of gain - or avoidance of pain - in maintaining it.

In any case, French officials say, they have a perfect right to put the health of the public first. The science of BSE is confused. It is in the interests of all consumers, including British ones, that the "principle of precaution" should take precedence over trade and neighbourly relations.

These are depressing and disingenuous arguments. With a little courage and far-sightedness, the Jospin government could have abolished the ban and ridden out what would have been, in all probability, a brief domestic squall. Until last week, all sides were convinced that they intended to do so.

The second report of the French food safety agency, commenting on the "additional reassurances" negotiated with Britain last month, was more negative than the French government had expected. In effect, the scientists passed the buck and the Jospin government dropped it. Their first report in September was categorical: British beef is not yet safe; the ban should not be lifted. The second report was fudged: an "unquantifiable" risk remained, and it was up to the politicians to decide whether to lift the ban or not.

There was more than enough wiggle room here to allow Mr Jospin to comply with EU law and admit the tiny quantities of British beef that would have been likely to travel. A number of options were discussed by ministers on Wednesday night, including a conditional lifting of the ban, with a threat to clamp down again if new doubts about BSE emerged. In the event, the ministers went for the domestically most convenient option: no change in the French law, and a vague offer to re-open negotiations.

The scientific arguments are, frankly, impenetrable to 99.9 per cent of people, including ministers and journalists on both sides of the Channel. The French food safety agency took one view; the European Union's scientific steering committee took another. The French government chose to back its own committee, which is exactly what the Eurosceptic press in Britain would have insisted that any British government should do.

In purely national terms, this decision was sensible and comfortable enough. In terms of European politics and France's wider and long-term interests, it was an act of myopia and cowardice. The decision ignored France's obligations under EU law. It was taken in the full knowledge that it would gravely damage Tony Blair's efforts to sweeten British public attitudes to Europe (a campaign that is in France's broader interests). And it risked starting a tit-for-tat of British consumer boycotts and French farmers' protests that could plunge cross-Channel relations into deep crisis.

The decision threatens France's own interests as a great food trading nation and the principal cash beneficiary of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. The "precaution principle" and the craving for "100 per cent risk- free" food may no longer sound so sensible to French ears if, say, the Dutch or Greeks start to make unreasonable hygiene demands on the runny and smelly raw milk cheeses that are among the glories of French farmers and exporters.

The Europe Minister, Pierre Moscovici, and the Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, raised these fundamental interests at Wednesday's meeting, but without success. The "Aids blood" precedent was not raised specifically, but officials insist that it was an "important factor" in the background. Personally, I don't buy it.

The parallel is a poor one. The ministers and officials who were accused of killing blood-transfusion patients ignored, for bureaucratic convenience, a clearly established threat to health and life. In this case, the French ministers were being asked to back a categorical declaration by EU scientists (British beef exports are safe) against a vague conclusion by French scientists (it may not be). They were also being asked to obey EU law. If they had lifted the beef embargo, it is difficult to imagine that anyone would have brought a successful legal argument that Mr Jospin and his minister had behaved negligently.

Blood is a convenient excuse. Wednesday's decision was a capitulation to domestic lobbies and short-term political pressures. As a failure to grasp and argue for France's wider European interests, it was a decision worthy of any British Conservative government in the last 20 years.

The Blair Government deserved better. It was right to try to negotiate with France and thereby avoid a lengthy and messy legal action that threatened to - and now will - ruin all hope of re-establishing the reputation of British beef in other European Union countries. For its pains, it received a kick in the teeth. What a Christmas gift for the Eurosceptics.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London