Blair: We'll sue France over beef ban

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BRITAIN's relations with France plunged to a new low yesterday after talks over the French ban on British beef between Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin, his French counterpart, ended in threats of legal action by both sides.

BRITAIN's relations with France plunged to a new low yesterday after talks over the French ban on British beef between Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin, his French counterpart, ended in threats of legal action by both sides.

The acrimonious row between the prime ministers overshadowed the European Union summit in Tampere, Finland. Mr Blair failed to win any concessions from France, which has refused to lift the embargo on British beef imports following the advice of its independent food safety council.

Mr Blair described the position taken by France as "wrong" and issued a scarcely veiled threat to the French authorities. He said: "If the European Commission rules in our favour, I think the French would be under enormous pressure to abide by that ruling. If they didn't, we would take the strongest possible action and we would have the rest of the EU on our side."

Under the Treaty of Rome, member-states can take unilateral action in the European Court of Justice against another EU country, although the commission would usually take the initiative.

French officials were unrepentant, suggesting that they would contest any legal action if the commission scientists rule against them. "If there is no sufficient certainty that British beef is safe, what choice does France have but to make a plea for this case in the European Court?" asked a senior official accompanying Jacques Chirac, the French President.

The row comes at an embarrassing moment for Mr Blair, a day after he launched the Britain in Europe campaign to promote the benefits of EU membership and insisted that his strategy of "positive engagement" in Europe was in the national interest.

Mr Blair said he had told Mr Jospin that "the present situation is entirely unacceptable". He said the British public was "angry and disappointed" at France's behaviour.

But French sources insisted that Paris's approach was based on scientific evidence and that the issue was being dealt with by the commission's scientific bodies.

Mr Blair raised the matter with Romano Prodi, the Commission President, and he had made it clear the commission stood "ready and willing to take the appropriate legal action".

On Thursday a working group of European scientists deferred judgement on France's scientific report until a meeting on 25 October. They also asked the UK for the latest data on the incidence of BSE, indicating that it is taking the French case seriously.

The Government is worried that Germany ­ the other country that has failed to lift the beef ban ­ has backed calls to examine the French report.

The Government's threat of legal action seems designed to maintain pressure on the commission to stick to a timetable expected to lead to a decision on 28 October, when its full scientific steering committee meets. British officials are concerned at the prospect that further bureaucratic devices could be used to delay a ruling.

The Tories sought to exploit Mr Blair's difficulties over the beef ban. "Tony Blair has always said that by doing whatever our EU partners want, we will somehow have influence at the heart of Europe," said Tim Yeo, agriculture spokesman. "Instead, our farmers have been betrayed by the European Commission and their own government."

But the Tories had their own problems yesterday as their civil war over Europe intensified. William Hague hit back at Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine for sharing a platform with Mr Blair at the Britain in Europe launch and blamed the two pro-EU heavyweights for the party's crushing defeat at the 1997 election.

Mr Hague said the party's problems and divisions were among people who had served in past Conservative governments. "That is why we are in opposition. That's why we lost the general election," he said.

He made it clear he would not include pro-Europeans in a Tory cabinet. "Everyone who is going to serve in a future Conservative government is committed to keeping the pound."

The Tory leader vowed to press ahead with a "save the pound" nation-wide tour on the back of an open-top lorry. Mr Hague vowed to press ahead with this even if no trucks were now made by British-owned companies. "That doesn't worry me at all," he said. "It is a soapbox with wheels, it won't be just a lorry."

Ian McCartney, minister for the Cabinet Office, said: "No amount of baseball caps or lorry tours will convince the people that he is the man to be the next prime minister. They should not listen to Tory policies that have fallen off the back of a lorry."

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