Brussels presses for peace in beef dispute

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair asked the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, yesterday to intervene with the French government in the worsening Anglo-French beef war, amid signs that a crucial meeting of EU scientists today will not resolve the crisis.

Tony Blair asked the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, yesterday to intervene with the French government in the worsening Anglo-French beef war, amid signs that a crucial meeting of EU scientists today will not resolve the crisis.

Mr Blair telephoned Mr Prodi, who later contacted the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, yesterday in an attempt to damp down the row. Sources in Brussels said Mr Prodi urged both sides to lower the temperature and offered to help to broker a compromise.

In the first signs that the French are looking for an honourable climb-down from the beef imbroglio, the French Farms minister, Jean Glavany, hinted yesterday that France could drop its ban in return for a tightening-up of the rules governing British beef exports.

But Downing Street sources were sceptical, saying there was no prospect of new British concessions being offered to persuade the French to back down and start accepting British beef imports.

Giving any new concessions to the French would provoke further anger against the Government, which is already under fire from furious farmers, the Opposition and the British anti-European press for its handling of the crisis.

"This is war," declared the Sun yesterday, demanding that the Prime Minister "start kicking backsides" in Paris and Brussels.

A committee of European scientists will meet today to try to reach a judgement on France's case for refusing to lift its ban on British beef. Officially the Government is confident that Britain will be vindicated, but it seems likely that the scientists will fail to deliver a clear verdict on the French claims. The commission would then have to decide whether or not to take legal action against Paris over its defiance of the EU decision to allow British beef back into world markets.

Mr Blair stood firm in the Commons and rejected opposition demands for a tit-for-tat ban on French meat. It would be both unjustified and "suicidal" for British trade interests, he said, denouncing the Conservative demands as "stupid", "irresponsible" and "foolish" and accusing William Hague, the Tory leader, of promoting "immature nonsense".

The Prime Minister was accused in return of being "spineless" by the opposition leader, who repeated his call for a temporary ban on French products because sewage was fed to French livestock.

"It's not just the dead cows that have had their spines taken out," Mr Hague said.

The Opposition also seized on Mr Blair's refusal explicitly to back the personal boycott by the Agriculture minister, Nick Brown, of French food and wine, claiming that it was evidence of a rift in the Cabinet.

"He is clearly hanging him out to dry," one senior Conservative source said.

Mr Brown earlier tried to calm angry farmers by publishing new food-labelling guidelines to allow shoppers to tell whether the products they are buying are really British.

But the minister found himself under fire after admitting that he had not spoken to his French counterpart, Jean Glavany, in more than a week, despite the deepening crisis.

Mr Glavany stirred further controversy by declaring that consumers across Europe were shunning British beef and disclosing that he had cancelled a planned face-to-face meeting with Mr Brown because it was impossible to hold a "calm dialogue" with him.

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