Brown confronting french farms minister over beef

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Agriculture minister Nick Brown was due to confront France over the beef war today, in face-to-face talks with his counterpart from Paris.

Agriculture minister Nick Brown was due to confront France over the beef war today, in face-to-face talks with his counterpart from Paris.

Mr Brown will challenge Jean Glavany to open French markets to UK imports immediately, following last week's unequivocal scientific verdict that British beef is as safe as any other.

The two men have been brought together for talks in Brussels by EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne, who is poised to launch legal proceedings against France if it continues to ban British beef without justification.

French consumer affairs minister Marylise Lebranchu will also be present, but no instant decisions by France are expected.

The early meeting reflects Mr Byrne's determination to reach a quick settlement of the dispute, and one which avoids European Court action which could take years.

Even after such clear-cut backing for British beef, Mr Byrne is reluctant to launch legal proceedings against France for blocking imports.

He believes a rapid diplomatic solution is the best result for both Britain and France and commented on the eve of the talks: "A calm and reasoned approach to resolving this particular difficulty is by far the best way forward."

Mr Brown, meanwhile, is bound to rebuff any attempts by France to seek a token gesture from Britain over beef safety measures.

The difficulty for French prime minister Lionel Jospin is that recent public health scandals in France have reduced his government's room for manoeuvre on food health issues.

And giving way to the EU scientific verdict would seriously embarrass the country's own independent Food Safety Agency, which claimed that British beef still posed a health risk.

It was the new agency's first public pronouncement since its fanfare launch, and it now leaves Mr Jospin in a tight spot - needing either to acknowledge that the body has been discredited or demand some symbolic further tightening of British beef measures against mad cow disease to save face.

But the scientific findings against France were so comprehensive that the government is in no mood to make concessions, and the commission is not out to broker a compromise deal.

Tory Euro MP Caroline Jackson said: "The French can have no further court of appeal. Difficult and humiliating as it may be, they have to back down."

The hope is that France will simply accept the findings and announce a lifting of the British beef imports ban which all member states agreed should be removed from last August 1.

If Mr Byrne is forced to launch legal action in the European Court of Justice, it would take at least 18 to 24 months to complete.

That would do little for British farmers, who are already expected to press compensation claims on the French authorities for lost income because of the continuing French ban.

Conservative Euro MP Struan Stevenson said actual losses in France would realistically be small, since little beef could have been expected to be exported to France if markets had opened as promised on August 1.

But he said farmers should be lodging claims with the French for damaging the reputation of British beef across Europe without justification.

Shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo said he believed Nick Brown's next stop after Brussels should be Berlin for talks with his German counterparts.

But, he insisted: "There should, of course, now be no question of making any concessions to accept perhaps, as was suggested, a special labelling requirement. It would in practical terms suggest to consumers abroad that there was still some stigma attached to British beef.

"Politically it would also show that we are still acting from a position of weakness which shouldn't really exist at all." Mr Yeo said the Tories believed that the right way to get the British beef ban overturned was to work through the machinery of the European Commission.

He had written to Mr Brown stressing that one concession he could make "would be to announce this morning that he was lifting the ban on beef on the bone at home".

"He seems to be the only person in Europe at the moment who doesn't realise that if the British Government doesn't have full confidence in British beef, it is hardly surprising that the French don't either," Mr Yeo told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.