Make no mistake, France's latest behaviour is indefensible. A fortnight ago Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, was in London, letting it be known to all and sundry that there was nothing to worry about. A go- ahead from the country's food safety board and, voila, without further ado, his government would give the green light to imports of British beef. And what has happened? Admittedly the safety board's verdict was non-committal, but even French farmers were in favour of ending the ban. However Mr Jospin, for purely political reasons, has decided otherwise.
His arguments are specious in the extreme. The decision, we are told, was taken on "health grounds" - yet EU scientists have pronounced British beef to be perfectly safe (not surprisingly, since it now probably undergoes the most rigorous production standards of any meat on earth). As for his observation that 40 countries still bar British beef, suffice it to point out that these, unlike France, are not members of the EU and thus are not bound to follow its treaty obligations. France is in breach of the law, science and common sense.
None the less, we should not yield to the urge for crude retaliation. Let shops and consumers (even Nick Brown) refuse to buy French produce if they choose. Indeed, a serious grass-roots boycott of French apples and cheese would cause far greater financial loss for France's farmers than a ban on British beef - of which, in any case, scarcely a truckload was likely to be sold in France - would inflict upon our own.
Official trade reprisals, on the other hand, would be both self-defeating and wrong. To its credit, our Government has realised this. The arenas in which to take on Paris over beef are bilateral meetings, the council of European agriculture ministers and, as is now inevitable, the European Court. The answer to illegality is not more illegality. Nor is it a poisonous, paralysing row at an EU summit.
The Jospin government's conduct may be infuriating and outrageous. But, as European crises go, the beef brouhaha is no great shakes - and certainly not worthy of overshadowing this weekend's meeting. Britain and France have far greater things afoot in Helsinki - above all their plan for defence co-operation, calling for the EU countries to set up a fully equipped 50,000-strong force by the year 2003. Ratification by the 15 leaders will give the European project a new dimension, whose potential implications equal those of the single currency.
The summit, held amid the Chechen crisis, will provide the sternest test yet of Europe's relations with Russia. It will also take crucial decisions for enlargement of the Union, authorising the start of accession negotiations with half a dozen more countries and, Greece willing, formally recognising Turkey as the first Muslim country to be a candidate for EU membership. So let Helsinki be remembered not as another chapter in the beef war, but as a landmark in Europe's progress. In other words, let it be a triumph of compartmentalisation.