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
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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.