Beef crisis infected with a bad case of soundbite disease

TRADE WAR Even as British tabloids denounce the `perfidious' French, both sides face EU deadline for a deal a deal

WHAT ON earth is happening in the Great Beef Crisis of 1999?

The French government says the beef talks with Britain are making progress but there are still points to be agreed. The British Government says the beef talks with France are making progress but there are still problems to overcome.

Most of the British media, led by BBC news bulletins of an interview with a French minister, say the French have "betrayed" Tony Blair.

The French government, despite its ban on British beef having been declared by EU scientists to be unnecessary, was generously given a chance to reach an amicable settlement. Instead, we are told, it has refused to co-operate and has "hardened" its position.

What is going on?

Parties on both sides have been astonished and irked by the screaming headlines in the British press and the equally negative reports in parts of the French press. The truth, they insist, is that a difficult negotiation is in progress. Three out of five points have been more or less settled. One huge difficulty - a French demand that all British beef exports should be traceable to their farm and animal of origin - remains.

"We want a settlement. The political will exists for a settlement. We are not there yet. But there are further talks in Brussels [today] and on Monday," a senior French ministerial source said. "I cannot say that there will be an agreement before next Tuesday [when the European Commission will consider whether to take legal action against France]. We have our own procedures and problems to consider. But we are trying to reach a settlement in good faith."

The negative headlines are partly the fault of the French government, whose official spokesman, Daniel Vaillant, gave a downbeat statement after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. He said that France could not lift the embargo because the talks had not yet made sufficient progress. The word "yet" disappeared from some of the reporting which followed.

In a ten-minute interview with the BBC, three minutes of which was broadcast on Wednesday morning, the consumer and trade minister, Mary-Lise Lebranchu, gave a largely positive assessment of the talks with Britain and the European Commission. Some of her positive comments disappeared in the editing but the three minutes that were broadcast presented a fair account of her position.

BBC news bulletins focused throughout the day on one soundbite which, taken out of context, made it sound as if Ms Lebranchu was saying: "Take us to court. We don't care."

This is not what the minister said. In the whole ten-minute interview , and even in the three-minute edit which was broadcast, her message can be paraphrased as follows: "We are looking for a solution. We are making progress. It might take a little while longer. We might not make next Tuesday's deadline [the only one that both the French and the British take seriously]. But if legal action starts, it is not necessarily a big deal. We can carry on talking and I am sure we can reach an amicable settlement in a matter of days, or at the most, weeks."

This is not precisely the message the British government wishes to hear. The French government is certainly stalling; it is trying to get as much as it can in the talks still in progress. But this is far from the "take us to court" which the BBC fed into the news-stream on Wednesday.

Part of the fault also lies with the British Government. Downing Street last week gave the impression that the talks with the French were for "clarification" of a few "technical" points. The truth is that both sides agreed that it would be better to reach an amicable settlement, rather than force France into a corner.

An amicable settlement does require some concessions by Britain, even though a committee of EU scientists declared that the limited British beef exports allowed by Brussels are safe.

The alternative is to fight a long legal action against France, which would keep the BSE issue in the forefront of the minds of not only the French public but the entire European public. If Britain wants gradually to regain its markets for beef on the Continent - and that, after all, is what the dispute is supposed to be about - it makes sense to persuade France, and French consumers, that their anxieties have been answered.

The French government sincerely wants a settlement. It has no interest in a continuing row with Britain that might be blown up by media hysteria into a quarrel and commercial war between the two peoples. The problem is that, whatever solution comes out of the negotiations, it must be swallowed by the independent French food safety agency AFSSA, which caused the problem by rejecting the EU terms for lifting the beef embargo in the first place.

To be reasonably sure that AFSSA will abandon its objections, Paris must be seen to win something substantial in the talks with the European Commission and the British Government. Outline agreement has already been reached on three points. There is still an outstanding problem about the timing of new EU rules on the labelling of all meat with its country and region of origin.

But the great remaining problem is the French demand that all British beef exports should be traceable to their farm and animal of origin. If conceded, this point would, in effect, overturn the principles on which the EU agreed to allow limited amounts of British beef back on to the continental market. The present EU agreement is "date-based": it allows the export of meat from all animals aged between six and 30 months old.

The British Government is not prepared to concede on this point; neither, so far, is France. Officials on all three sides (including Brussels) want a way out. The possibility remains of a deal next week. It may take a little longer. Even if legal action by Brussels or Britain starts next Tuesday, all sides appear committed to searching for a settlement.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea