A "protocol of understanding" between the two governments was issued last night and will now go to the independent French food safety agency, the body which provoked the row in the first place, in what both governments hope will lead to a lifting of the ban.
The Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said he expected a result in the first week of December. "There is no change to the date-based export scheme," Mr Brown said. "There are no new burdens on British farmers or exporters. I hope these discussions... will enable the French food safety agency to reconsider their advice".
Brussels had already paved the way for this deal by making it clear that British beef could be labelled with its country of origin without breaching the rules of the internal market.
That was backed by more detailed guarantees contained in yesterday's document. In it the Commission says it will carry out spot-checks every four months on farms and animals taking part in the export scheme.
Paris also seems content with assurances over the treatment of cattle which come from the same cohort as any cow born after 1996 which contracts BSE. The document says such cattle will be withdrawn "from the human food chain" and the "animal feed chain". So far no such cases have been detected.
Efforts to test for BSE are also to be stepped up, with the Commission convening a working group to look at post-mortem testing in all EU countries, including Britain. The UK has also agreed to a pilot project taking on two of the port-mortem tests available.
Meanwhile Brussels has undertaken to present every three months a report on the evolution of the BSE epidemic, including results from the UK diagnostic tests when they are available.
French diplomats described the document as a "compromise" but a British official said: "This text represents the points we have been clarifying for France over the past few weeks... If these clarifications have proved helpful to the French... in allowing them to go back to the agency, that is a step forward."
David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, welcomed the "common understanding". He said: "I hope that this will overcome France's objection to lifting the embargo on British beef."
A world-wide ban on British beef exports was introduced by the EU in 1996 after outbreaks of BSE, or mad cow disease, among herds. But France has maintained its embargo, on the advice of its own food agency despite an all-clear from EU, and now faces legal action from the Commission.
Germany, the only other country not to lift the ban, has one week to make clear its position to Brussels, before risking the start of infringement proceedings.
The timing of yesterday's announcement means that the French agency may still be discussing the package when Tony Blair and his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, meet at an annual Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday. In diplomatic circles there is, however, relief that the shape of an agreement has been reached.Reuse content