COMMONS STATEMENT: Minister rejects both trade war and resignation

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THE AGRICULTURE Minister, Nick Brown, yesterday faced Conservative calls that he should resign over the French refusal to lift the ban on British exports of beef.

Describing the French cabinet's decision as "astonishing", Mr Brown swept aside demands for his resignation and told the Tory MPs that a "tit-for- tat" trade war with France would be "mad" and "disastrous" for British exporters. In a statement to the Commons he said the Government was "surprised and deeply disappointed" by the French refusal to lift the ban.

"It comes after many weeks of intensive talks from which we received the impression that we had answered all questions and met all the concerns from the French side."

Yesterday David Byrne, European commissioner for consumer affairs and food safety, assured Mr Brown he would proceed immediately with the court action against the French. The Agriculture Minister said: "The Commission has worked as hard as we have to resolve this matter through rational discussion. Mr Byrne sees no alternative now but court action."

Tim Yeo, the Conservative spokesman on agriculture, castigated the Government for "weak and incompetent" handling of the crisis. He told Mr Brown: "You should have asked the Commission to start legal action much sooner. By not even raising the beef issue at the Anglo-French summit the Prime Minister kicked British farmers in the teeth and let the French off the hook."

Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, said Mr Yeo's remarks were "cheap and disgraceful". A trade war would damage exports of Scotchwhisky, he said.

David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, supported the personal boycott of French goods by Mr Brown and called for the public to buy Somerset cheese in the run-up to Christmas instead of French produce.

Mr Brown said he would continue talks with the French in spite of the legal action. "It would be incredibly immature if we gave up on dialogue at all levels over this issue."

But Tory MPs protested at the Prime Minister's attempts to "cuddle up" to the French. Michael Howard, a former home secretary, said the debacle "marked the collapse of the Government's entire European policy".

"For all the concessions the Prime Minister has made on qualified majority voting, and a new defence initiative with the French government, the fact remains European countries will pursue their own national interests. When will this Government stand up for British interests in Europe?"

Mr Brown retorted: "We are standing up for British interests but the difference is we are doing it intelligently."

David Curry, a former Tory agriculture minister, called for Mr Brown to continue the dialogue with the French. Mr Brown said he had spoken to his French opposite number but did not disclose what was said.

Patrick Nicholls, the Tory MP for Teignbridge, told Mr Brown: "The kindest thing that one could say about your performance today was that it was pathetic."

He asked how the minister could justify conceding that British beef should be labelled with its place of origin while it was not appropriate for French meat "raised on excrement" to be labelled in the same way.

Mr Nicholls demanded: "How many scientists do you need to tell you that food raised in those circumstances raises an inference that it might be unsafe?"

However, Jim Murphy , the Labour MP for Eastwood, highlighted the case of an eight-year-old constituent who lost his mother to new-variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, which has been linked to eating BSE-infected meat.

He urged Mr Brown to ignore the "bombastic and Barbour-jacket diplomacy" advocated by the Tories.

Sir Peter Emery, the Tory MP for Devon East, attacked the minister's "softly, softly negotiating approach" on the beef issue as "a disaster".

He said: "The French, when they want a position, take the role of De Gaulle - and they stand out and really fight irrespective of what the rest of Europe thinks about it."

Donald Anderson, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: "If we are to succeed in law, we must come with clean hands.

"We must remain on the high ground, where we are now, and avoid irresponsible, counter-productive, populist gestures as suggested by the Opposition."

Mr Howard claimed concessions offered by the Prime Minister in Europe had made no difference to other EU member states pursuing their own national interests, even if they breached European law.