MEPs in beef protest during Chirac speech

MEAT EMBARGO Parliament walkout coincides with new legal moves
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The Independent Online
BRITISH EURO-MPs yesterday staged a parliamentary walkout in Strasbourg during a speech by the French president, Jacques Chirac, before chanting and waving placards in a mini-demonstration in support of UK beef farmers.

The protest coincided with new legal moves against France for its defiance of EU law and a sharp exchange between the British and French agriculture ministers at their first meeting since France's latest refusal to lift its embargo on UK beef.

More than 100 MEPs staged the silent walkout just as President Chirac thanked MEPs for a "very warm and friendly welcome" at the official opening of the pounds 250m building. Ironically, just before the demonstration the president of the parliament, Nicole Fontaine, had told MEPs that they were in a parliament that had reached "political maturity". Outside the chamber Tory MEPs gave a rather different impression, chanting "where's the beef" as they waved a union flag and placards reading: "Let them eat cake - Marie Antoinette 1789 - Let them eat beef - Conservative Euro-MPs 1999".

Although British Greens and the Scottish Nationalist Party did not take part, the protest included all three major political parties, as MEPs competed in their condemnation of the French. Alan Donnelly, leader of the 29 Labour MEPs, argued that it "is an insult for President Chirac to hold such a solemn ceremony at a time when the French government is doing its best to undermine the EU". Edward McMillan-Scott, his Conservative counterpart, added: "We left the chamber in protest at the continuation of the French ban on British beef, contrary to law and scientific opinion." One Scottish Tory, Struan Stevenson, accused the French of protectionism over their continuing embargo. But the MEPs were careful to behave inside the chamber. There was no attempt to disrupt Mr Chirac's speech and the most provocative gesture came from on MEP who left a model of a cow with a union flag in his place.

Some of the MEPs in the walkout turned out to be protesting at the European Parliament's expensive regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Nelly Mines, a Dutch Green, attacked the Brussels-Strasbourg "merry-go- round" which, she said, was the source of "immense frustration". Ms Fontaine seemed well-prepared for this criticism, reminding MEPs that it was the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who in 1949 first suggested that Strasbourg should be the centre of a post-war European organisation to ensure lasting peace. Despite her French nationality, Ms Fontaine has championed the cause of British farmers and written to Romano Prodi, European Commission president, urging help for them.

In Brussels, the first face-to- face meeting between Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, and his French counterpart, Jean Glavany, resulted in a frank exchange of views. Mr Brown said "no one had tried harder" that himself and the European Commissioner for food safety, David Byrne, to resolve the dispute.