Britain denies concessions as beef war heads for the courts

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France faces the start of EU legal action today for failing to lift its ban on British beef, despite signs that Paris may be on the point of accepting British safeguards against any future outbreak of mad cow disease.

France faces the start of EU legal action today for failing to lift its ban on British beef, despite signs that Paris may be on the point of accepting British safeguards against any future outbreak of mad cow disease.

David Byrne, the commissioner for health and consumer protection, is expected to announce the start of proceedings against France in the European Court, barring a last-minute change of heart by the French government this morning.

Efforts to resolve the dispute will continue even after today's deadline, amid growing signs that France and Britain are inching closer to an agreement on some of the outstanding points of difference between the two countries. Jean Glavany, the French agriculture minister, struck an optimistic tone yesterday arguing that "a very great advance" had been made and that the UK had spelt out detailed measures to control any future outbreaks of BSE.

He said: "It is not a question of legal action, of sanctions or punishments or face-saving. The problem is to find a solution which involves a guarantee of supplementary health and security measures." A solution "could come quickly".

Downing Street denied that there had been any concessions to the French by Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture. But by highlighting plans for British controls over future outbreaks Mr Glavany may be paving the way for France to drop its ban.

Suggestions in France that Britain had agreed to slaughter animals belonging to the same cohort as that of a new BSE case were denied. But in Brussels Mr Brown said that if a case was confirmed, "we would certainly take the animal out of the food chain and look very closely at its cohort. They would be taken away and examined so that they would effectively be taken out of the food chain."

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