France raises temperature in beef war

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France raised the temperature in the beef war today - 24 hours before Paris was expected to decide whether or not to lift its ban on British imports.

France raised the temperature in the beef war today - 24 hours before Paris was expected to decide whether or not to lift its ban on British imports.

French consumer affairs minister Marylise Lebranchu shrugged off the threat of legal action by Brussels and insisted there were still difficulties over UK health and safety safeguards against mad cow disease.

She hinted at the need for concessions from Britain to appease French consumers before the row is resolved.

The setback came after EU scientific experts - led by French Professor Gerard Pascal - gave British beef a clean bill of health more than a week ago, saying it was as safe as any in Europe.

Even then the UK agreed to more talks to "clarify" Britain's anti-BSE measures for the French.

And EU food safety Commissioner David Byrne said he expected a response from Paris by tomorrow.

Now, in an interview with the BBC, Ms Lebranchu has dismissed the unequivocal "all-clear" for British beef from the experts and called for additional testing of British cattle for BSE.

That would amount to the kind of concession that agriculture minister Nick Brown has refused categorically to consider as the price of winning French agreement to lift the ban.

The President of the National Farmers Union, Ben Gill, rejected the damands as more delaying tactics.

Mr Gill warned of a major EU crisis beyond the beef war if the matter was not settled quickly.

He said: "I am not prepared to go on having filibustering tactics from the French with any further delays.

"British farmers have waited three and a half years - the vast bulk of that without any proper justification - to have this ban lifted."

You cannot possibly be going on with a single member state - a founding member state - ignoring whatever European law they want.

"It does not work and if there is not a resolution of this problem in the time-frame laid down there is a major constitutional and political crisis for the EU that is many layers of magnitude higher than just beef".

Ms Lebranchu today raised the issue of the "traceability" of cattle as a sticking point, but Mr Gill said that was one of the matters covered by the Date-Based Export Scheme, agreed by EU governments more than a year ago as the basis for reopening export markets for British beef.

The French minister rejected the suggestion that her government was up against a deadline, insisting: "We specifically said we did not want to give a date because that makes things difficult. Once you have set a date you are stuck with it."

She added: "I think the talks are going very well. If it takes two or three extra days because it is necessary it is better than to end up with an agreement that doesn't work.

"I think we can sort this in a matter of days, maybe weeks: I don't think it will take months".

Commission officials greeted the idea that talks are still going with surprise. The meeting last Friday of British and French agriculture civil servants to "clarify" the situation was understood to be the last, certainly at official level.

And Prime Minister Tony Blair's chat with his French counterpart Lionel Jospin on the sidelines of the rugby World Cup final in Cardiff last weekend was seen as the last word before a decision in Paris tomorrow.

Mr Byrne signalled last week that if that decision did not satisfy Brussels, he would announce his final conclusions after talks with the other Commissioners in Strasbourg next Tuesday.

That was seen as an ultimatum to France that legal action would be launched on November 16 at the latest.

But the French consumer affairs minister said today: "I think it is not very important if the European Commission takes legal action. We would rather it did not happen, of course, but what is important is to see what kind of progress we can make.

"We have to see what progress can be made with Britain on animal tracing and thus we win on the matter of public health and that is more important than to to try and avoid a legal process for the sake of it."

She said talks were going on with "plenty of goodwill" to overcome "difficulties" which still existed on UK methods of checking, testing and animal tracing.

"Then we can end the embargo. But the French Prime Minister is also saying that if there is a sticking point which directly affects public health, then we will go ahead and take the risk of having the Commission take legal action.

"We understand the economic social and political problems in Britain, but we understand the health problems which also affect Britain. So we have to make progress together."

The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, today angrily warned France not to try to impose new conditions on the import of British beef.

His comments came as a spokesman for the Paris government declared there was no chance of France lifting its ban on British beef as the conditions it had laid down "in the name of prevention and health" had not been met.

That drew a furious retort from Mr Brown who warned that Britain would demand the European Commission take legal action if the French did not comply with EU law and lift the ban.

"It is not for the French government to set extra conditions around the date-based export scheme," he told BBC Radio 4's the World at One.

"That scheme has been agreed with the European Union. It is the law and if we cannot get agreement by negotiation we will look to the Commission to enforce the law."

The French government spokesman said: "For now, there cannot be a unilateral lifting of the embargo. The conditions set by France in the name of prevention and health are not being fulfilled."

Mr Brown said that he would be discussing the latest French statement with European food safety commissioner David Byrne later today and said the Government was prepared for a legal fight.

"If the French are saying they are unable to lift the ban following the exhaustive clarification of the technical workings of the scheme they have had from us we will have no choice but make recourse to law," he said.

"It is not my preferred option because it takes longer but I have absolutely no doubt that we will. Certainly we are prepared for that to happen and we are willing to fight our corner if we have to.

"I would have preferred to get this resolved by discussion and by sensible analysis of the situation but if we can't do it, if we have to fight our way through the courts, then so be it."