Beef talks to go on even if Brussels prosecutes French

THE EUROPEAN Commission has cleared the way for Anglo-French talks on beef to continue even if legal action against France starts next week.

Talks yesterday between Britain and France were said to have "made progress", despite an angry assessment from the French agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, and calls for concessions from Britain. Officials believe a settlement willeventually be reached.

Mr Glavany said that in Britain there was "a kind of anti-French, Francophobe fury, with xenophobic overtones" and he gave no hint of French compromise. "The English are pretending they think we want explanations and clarifications whereas what we want are additional guarantees," he said. "We're not getting those guarantees. Our experts are going around in circles."

Mr Glavany also contrasted what he called the "hatred towards us when the Germans - where 16 out of 16 federal states have voted against lifting the embargo - are spared any criticism". On Monday Mr Glavany will meet Nick Brown, his British counterpart, on the eve of the European Commission's deadline for launching legal action, providing an 11th-hour opportunity for agreement.

Yesterday one senior Brussels source said even if formal legal proceedings are started on Tuesday, "all parties are committed to carry on their negotiations".

The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in talks on Thursday with Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, tried to postpone legal action, but Brussels views that as almost impossible.

Two issues remain unresolved: one is the labelling of British beef; the other, more difficult, is "traceability". Yesterday Mr Glavany repeated that Britain should guarantee exported beef came from herds free from BSE. Meat from Northern Ireland under a separate scheme is restricted to that from herds free of mad cow disease for eight years.

But this assurance, which would require a fundamental change in the UK's date-based export scheme, is France's ideal, and not its bottom line in negotiations. One French source said technical talks that took place in Brussels yesterday had "made progress", and European Union officials characterised the meeting as "really constructive".

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