Beef Embargo: MEPs stage mass walkout during Chirac speech

Parliament demonstration coincides with legal moves against Paris as Jospin tries to explain his stance to the British media
Click to follow
BRITISH EURO-MPs staged a parliamentary walkout in Strasbourg yesterday during a speech by the French President, Jacques Chirac, before chanting and waving placards in a demonstration in support of beef farmers in the United Kingdom.

The protest coincided with new legal moves against France for its defiance of European Union law and a sharp exchange between the British and French agriculture ministers at their first meeting since France's latest refusal to lift its embargo on UK beef.

More than 100 MEPs staged the silent walkout just as President Chirac thanked MEPs for a "very warm and friendly welcome" at the official opening of the pounds 250m building. Ironically, shortly before the demonstration the president of the parliament, Nicole Fontaine, had told MEPs that it had reached "political maturity".

Outside the chamber Tory MEPs gave a rather different impression, chanting "Where's the beef" as they waved a Union flag and placards reading: "Let them eat cake - Marie Antoinette 1789 - Let them eat beef - Conservative Euro-MPs 1999".

Although British Greens and the Scottish National Party did not take part, the protest included all three major political parties, as MEPs competed in their condemnation of the French. Alan Donnelly, leader of the 29 Labour MEPs, argued that it "is an insult for President Chirac to hold such a solemn ceremony at a time when the French government is doing its best to undermine the EU". Edward McMillan-Scott, his Conservative counterpart, added: "We left the chamber in protest at the continuation of the French ban on British beef, contrary to law and scientific opinion." A Scottish Tory, Struan Stevenson, accused the French of protectionism over their continuing embargo.

But the MEPs were careful to behave inside the chamber. There was no attempt to disrupt Mr Chirac's speech and the most provocative gesture came from one MEP who left a model of a cow with a Union flag in his place.

Some MEPs in the walkout turned out to be protesting at the parliament's expensive regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg.

Nelly Mines, a Dutch Green, attacked the Brussels- Strasbourg "merry-go-round", which was the source of "immense frustration".

The Scottish National Party MEPs were criticised by Mr Stevenson for not joining the beef protest walkout. He said: "They are playing into French hands. They should remember that this latest defiance of EU law by the French, marks the 82nd time that infringement procedures will have been taken against them in the past two years. They [the French] are serial offenders and have run rings around Tony Blair, Nick Brown and even the new Food Safety Commissioner, David Byrne."

Ms Fontaine seemed well-prepared for this criticism, reminding MEPs that it was Ernest Bevin who, as British Foreign Secretary in 1949, first suggested that Strasbourg should be the centre of a post-war European organisation to ensure lasting peace.

Despite her French nationality, Ms Fontaine has championed the cause of British farmers and written to Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, urging help for them.

In Brussels the first face-to- face meeting between Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, and the France agriculture minister Jean Glavany, resulted in a frank exchange of views. Mr Brown said "no one had tried harder" than himself and Mr Byrne to resolve the dispute.

He warned that Paris "should be clear of depth of feeling in the UK", adding that "people at home feel let down".