Blair rejected Jospin deal on Scottish beef

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Tony Blair's handling of the beef crisis was dealt a fresh blow yesterday with a disclosure by Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, that he had offered to lift the ban on exports of Scottish beef two months ago.

Tony Blair's handling of the beef crisis was dealt a fresh blow yesterday with a disclosure by Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, that he had offered to lift the ban on exports of Scottish beef two months ago.

Mr Jospin's revelation, which caught Scottish ministers unawares, came as France was given a fresh ultimatum by the European Commission to lift the ban on British beef within five days or face court action.

The Commission is expected to agree to refer the matter to the European Court at its next meeting next Wednesday. It might also seek an injunction forcing the French to lift the embargo while the court case is being heard, which could take up to 18 months, although a Commission spokeswoman stressed that the criteria needed to achieve an injunction were "strict".

British Tory MEPs walked out of a speech by Jacques Chirac, the French President, in the European Parliament yesterday to show their anger.

The French made clear that they had no intention of abiding by the Commission's latest warning. But Mr Blair's officials tried to repair the diplomatic damage over Mr Jospin's remarks. "Mr Jospin was probably trying to be helpful," said a Downing Street spokesman.

Clearly well-briefed, Mr Jospin told British journalists in a charm offensive that in a telephone conversation with Mr Blair in October he had offered to lift the ban on beef from exclusively grass-fed herds, such as Aberdeen Angus.

He denied that France was isolated, pointing out that the ban was also imposed by Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. And he cited more than 30 councils in Britain that had refused to buy the beef for serving in schools, in spite of a request for them to do so in October by Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture.

Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, admitted knowing nothing about the offer. Downing Street officials insisted that Scottish ministers had not been formally notified of the offer because it had not been made officially by Mr Jospin. Mr Blair turned it down immediately as "unworkable" without telling colleagues because it would have undermined the national date-based scheme backed by the European Commission.

"Mr Jospin put the suggestion to the Prime Minister in a telephone call in October. This was not a formal proposal. It was a suggestion where he talked about the possibility of grass-fed herds being exempted. The idea may have been superficially appealing but it would not have worked," a No 10 spokesman said.

In Brussels, officials dismissed any suggestion that the Government could have accepted a French offer to lift the ban only on Scottish beef. They said that to do so would have undermined the whole basis of the date-based export arrangements under which 13 European Union countries have now admitted British beef.

The Scottish nationalists condemned Mr Blair's action as a "betrayal of Scotland" last night. "This is an extraordinary and outrageous turn of events," said Alasdair Morgan, the Scottish National Party's rural affairs spokesman. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said it was "unacceptable that Scottish ministers, including the Rural Affairs minister and the First Minister, were kept in the dark about what could have offered a major opportunity to the Scottish beef industry".

Mr Dewar's official spokesman defended Mr Blair, saying: "Mr Dewar was not informed because it was not a live proposal. Mr Jospin's proposal was neither realistic nor formal. If it had been either of these, No 10 would have raised it with us."

Jim Walker, president of the Scottish National Farmers' Union, accused the French of trying to drive a wedge between parts of the United Kingdom. "This can only be a blatant attempt by the French to shift attention away from their unwarranted and illegal action and to attempt to drive a wedge between different parts of the UK," he said.

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