The European Commission agreed yesterday to give the French government an extra seven days to reply to the second and final stage of legal warning, after complaints from Paris that it had not had enough time to respond properly.
The move is a setback for David Byrne, the European commissioner for health and consumer protection, who has already extended the deadline once, because of a technical mix-up when the initial warning letter was sent. Commission officials expect the matter to reach court early in January.
The Tories accused Brussels and the Government of "dither and delay" and warned that the postponement made it less likely that German states would lift their beef ban.
Tim Yeo, the Tory agriculture spokesman, seized on the delay as further evidence of the Government's failure to act decisively on the issue. "It is a total fiasco, which would be farcical if it wasn't so extremely serious. It is the old, old story of those who play the game getting away with it again," he said.
"The Government could have started legal action soon after 1 August and have dithered about ever since then. The poor British beef farmers are the ones being made to suffer. If we don't take real action against France, how on earth are we going to persuade the Germans to lift their ban?"
The first deadline for Paris to reply or have the matter referred directly to the European Court of Justice was last Sunday at midnight. Brusselsextended that because of a technical error in the letter, over a "reasoned opinion", which constitutes the final legal warning before court action.
When it sent the letter for the second time, France was given until midnight tonight to reply.
The European Commission decided yesterday to allow that deadline to be stretched to 30 December apparently because of fears that the court might criticise it for giving Paris too little time to prepare.
French officials said that the reasons for the delay concerned the difficulty of agreeing a legally defensible text among all the government departments.
Yesterday, at its last meeting of the year, the European Commission agreed, apparently because of fears that the court might criticise it for giving Paris too little time to prepare.
The decision, though annoying for the British Government, is not expected to change the outcome. A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: "It is up to the commission to decide how to pursue the case."
A spokeswoman for Mr Byrne said: "The commission did not want to run a procedural risk in the event of this case going to court, and therefore accepted that France was given a very short deadline and has the right to request a longer one."
Yesterday's commission meeting also decided to delegate "the final decision to take France to the European Court of Justice" to Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, and to Mr Byrne. However, they could opt to refer the decision back to another meeting of the commission,which would delay the matter until after the next scheduled gathering on 12 January.
Meanwhile, Britain announced that the 30-month rule, which sets the maximum age at which cattle can be slaughtered for human consumption, will not be lifted in the near future.