End to beef war is just `a hair's breadth' away, says Brussels

A DEAL to end the beef crisis is a "hair's breadth" away, the European Commission said last night. The commission launched the first stage of a court action against France and stepped up pressure on Germany, the only other EU country still maintaining an embargo. But the commission made clear that although the legal deadline had passed, a settlement of the Anglo-French crisis is finally taking shape.

In Strasbourg, David Byrne, the health and consumer protection commissioner, indicated clearly that the package involved no fundamental British concessions. France instead appears ready to accept "clarifications" from Britain and reassurances from the commission.

"There are no concessions and there will be no greater restrictions on the date based export scheme. There will be no added cost to producers or exporters," a government official said. "What we have done is give guarantees to the French. But there have been no concessions. We are happy to give the French the guarantees they need."

Jean Glavany a French Agriculture minister, told the National Assembly in Paris yesterday that he had obtained "significant advances" in his talks with Britain. It seems, however, that France has shifted its position substantially more than Britain.

The deal, agreed in outline in Brussels on Monday, leaves intact the original EU scheme for permitting limited exports of beef from cattle between six and 30 months old. The French had initially wanted to move to another scheme, which would have allowed beef imports only from individual cows and herds certified BSE-free. Instead, they have accepted a promise that all cows in the same "cohort", or age group, as a cow found to have BSE will be excluded from the export market.

Officials in Paris said the outline deal had already been agreed with the independent French food safety agency, Afssa. It was this agency that began the dispute in September when it rejected EU safeguards for the resumption of British beef exports.

The package of "concessions" will probably be presented to the food agency today or tomorrow. If the agency feels able to give a rapid and positive response, the French embargo could be formally lifted by early next week.

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