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
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn