Blair refuses to join in tit-for-tat war with France

THE PRIME Minister ruled out a "tit-for-tat trade war" yesterday, accusing William Hague of "immature nonsense" by advocating an illegal ban on French products. Tony Blair warned the Tory leader during Prime Minister's question time that the "best way to deal with it [the dispute] is to play it straight by the rules to make sure we have the law on our side, quality on our side and science on our side."

THE PRIME Minister ruled out a "tit-for-tat trade war" yesterday, accusing William Hague of "immature nonsense" by advocating an illegal ban on French products. Tony Blair warned the Tory leader during Prime Minister's question time that the "best way to deal with it [the dispute] is to play it straight by the rules to make sure we have the law on our side, quality on our side and science on our side."

But Mr Hague attacked the Government for failing to take effective action to protect the public. When it came to ministers, "it is not just the dead cows which have had their spines taken out", he said.

Mr Hague said the Government knew in June that French animal feed was contaminated "with waste from septic tanks, water from washing lorries and human sewage and scientists were now warning French meat could pose dangers to the public". He added: "That was four months ago. Don't you regret that the Government did absolutely nothing about that at the time?"

Mr Blair said the Government and the European Commission had made representations over the issue. "The advice we got from our scientists yesterday was this: 'There is no immediate health risk and therefore no basis for seeking a ban of French products at either Community level or unilaterally'."

He told Mr Hague: "Therefore, the ban that you are calling for on French products would be stupid and illegal. You are calling for an illegal ban on French products. That would start precisely the type of trade war that any sensible person would want to avoid."

The angry exchanges came shortly after Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, tried to appease angry farmers by publishing new food labelling guidelines, the "British Food Kitemark", to ensure shoppers can tell if products they are buying are British.

Mr Hague said the Minister of Agriculture had launched a personal boycott of all French products and taunted Mr Blair: "And you lecture other people about a trade war? Do you support Mr Brown's boycott?"

Mr Blair said: "We want people to eat good British beef, good British pork, good British lamb - that is a choice British consumers are making. What we do not want is an illegal trade war. That is what you are suggesting."

He quoted the Scottish National Farmers' Union, which said it was "not in favour of a tit-for-tat trade war", and added: "Those are sensible words. Those are the words of people with British farming at their heart - not the Opposition who want to whip up their normal anti-Europeanism, who have locked themselves into a stupid policy that would do enormous damage to this country. This country will never forget who gave us BSE in the first place."

The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, said everyone agreed the French were acting "in an unlawful way" on British beef imports.

He went on: "If history teaches us anything ... it is that trade wars, a descent into protectionism, is counterproductive, self-defeating and, quite frankly, is the height of political and parliamentary irresponsibility."

Mr Blair replied: "That is the Conservative Party position."

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