Blair: Beef war may end in a matter of days

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TONY BLAIR raised hopes last night that the two-month-long Anglo- French beef war could be over in days, after a meeting with his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin.

The French Trade minister warned, however, that negotiations might drag on beyond the Thursday deadline set last week by Brussels. She said that agreement had been reached on two points but not yet on others.

The Prime Minister was speaking during a visit to the Socialist International conference in Paris. Although Mr Blair and Mr Jospin did not formally discuss the beef dispute, which has soured relations between London and Paris, the issue is believed to have been raised in a one-to-one meeting.

Asked afterwards by a French television interviewer whether he expected a settlement within months or days, Mr Blair said: "I hope it will only be a matter of days." The European Commission gave France until midnight on Thursday to agree arrangements with Britain to lift its illegal ban on British beef. If France fails to remove the embargo by next Monday at the latest, it faces a lengthy legal action in the European Court of Justice.

Mr Blair made clear yesterday that he would prefer an amicable settlement with Paris, which would persuade French consumers British beef is the "safest in the world".

"If I did not think that our meat was safe, I would not allow it to be fed to my own people," he said. In an interview with France 3 television, broadcast last night, Mr Blair said that Britain had agreed to hold the negotiations "in good faith", despite the fact that the French doubts about British beef had been rejected by a panel of EU scientists.

The ban must be lifted, he said, but it was also in Britain's interests to calm the anxieties of French consumers about the presence of BSE in British beef herds.

Mary-Lise Lebranchu, the French Trade minister, earlier struck a more cautious note. "We don't want to be imprisoned by a date," she said. A first round of talks last Friday between Britain, France and the European Commission had reached agreement on arrangements for new controls and tests on animals, she said. Talks were still continuing on the traceability of British exports to their farm of origin, the labelling of British beef and arrangements for products derived from beef.

Under French law, she said, whatever agreement was reached would have to be considered by the committee of French BSE experts that recommended the continued rejection of British beef in the first place.

British beef consumption last year was up 20 per cent on 1996 when the mad-cow crisis was at its height, according to a government survey published yesterday. The National Food Survey showed 1998 beef sales were virtually in line with 1997 when the industry recovered from falls provoked by fears of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

n The Government is opposing moves to introduce the first EU-wide tax, to try to shield profits in the City of London.

The proposed tax would be levied on the interest generated by savings. It would force member states either to tax interest paid to non-resident EU citizens, or to inform tax authorities in their native country about their earnings.

The German Finance Minister, Hans Eichel, accused Britain of provoking "a dramatic situation". Failure to agree the package, the EU's first move into direct taxation, "would have the most grave consequences for the credibility of European politics", Mr Eichel added.

Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, held out the prospect that Mr Blair may be ambushed over the issue at next month's Helsinki summit. The row looks likely to continue today when the European commissioner responsible for tax policy, Frits Bolkestein, visits London for a series of meetings in Whitehall and the City.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, did not attend yesterday's meeting, but the Paymaster General, Dawn Primarolo, gave no hint of compromise, arguing that "nothing we have heard from member states has changed our view".