Leading Article: We must lose some face to win a French climbdown

IN MATTERS of rugby right now, a little Francophilia is still permissible. But, as Nick Brown has just learnt to his cost, nowhere else.

In agreeing to further scientific tests on the safety of our beef, the Agriculture minister has committed the unforgivable sin of caving in to perfidious Gaul. Did not a panel of 16 European scientists unanimously pronounce last week that British beef was as fit to eat as any in the world ? Why, then, his critics rage, this sudden retreat; this snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory?

On closer inspection, however, the defeat is hard to discern.

If a few more days' "study" by experts is the price required for a French climb-down, then this price is worth paying. Unarguably, France is in the wrong in this dispute. But to secure the formal victory in the European courts that would oblige Paris to back down would take a year or more. And France is not the only problem. Approval of an end to the ban on British beef may be even trickier in Germany, where eight out of 16 federal states oppose it.

What is more, even if France does lift the ban, its consumers will not be clamouring for British beef. It is not as if the diminished livelihood of our farmers hangs on the gallant Mr Brown's coming home from foreign soil as Maff's answer to Henry V. And one final point. Whisper it not, but there appear to have been up to 3,000 new cases of BSE among British cattle over the last year - proving, if nothing else, that the beef argument offers propaganda ammunition for both sides. So why not go the extra mile now to get a political settlement ?

And, talking of extra miles, we might remember numerous past occasions in our tormented membership of Europe when our partners have travelled them to accommodate a British objection, however unjustifiable it may have appeared to them. Words and phrases such as "renegotiation" and "opt- out" spring to mind. But now the roles are reversed.

For once, it is a British Government conducting itself in a measured and reasonable - dare we say it, communautaire - fashion. As a rule, magnanimity in victory is a hallmark of statesmanship. Not, however, when the British are quarrelling with the French over beef. In this arena, communautaire translates as "abject surrender". Victory must be absolute, French noses must be rubbed in the dirt, and no amount of heroics by Les Bleus against the Australians on Saturday will change this sorry mindset.

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