France refuses to lift ban on beef

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In a stunning rebuff to the Blair government and the European Union, France last night refused to lift its illegal embargo on imports of British beef.

In a stunning rebuff to the Blair government and the European Union, France last night refused to lift its illegal embargo on imports of British beef.

Against all expectations, French ministers decided that new safeguards agreed with London and Brussels last month did not offer sufficient protection to French consumers from possible infection with the human version of mad cow disease.

The beef dispute now seems certain to drag into a lengthy legal battle in the European Court - exactly the outcome that the Government wished to avoid. The French government - saying that it was "driven by a priority concern for public health" - called for immediate new negotiations on two points: improved and wider testing of British cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE); and the systematic labelling of British beef exports.

These demands seem certain to be angrily rejected by both the European Commission and the Government today. Both London and Brussels thought that last month they had negotiated in good faith a package of measures covering precisely these points, and others, which would be enough to end the two-month-old Anglo-French beef crisis. The European Commission will now go ahead with the second stage of its legal action against France for refusing to admit British beef.

A committee of French BSE experts gave a non-committal response on Monday to the new safeguards agreed last month, saying that progress had been made but that "plausible" risks remained. It was thought that the experts' report was sufficiently vague to allow the French government room to take a political decision to avoid a major European crisis and lift the ban.

But the Jospin government's political courage appears to have failed in the face of pressure from consumer groups and right-wing opposition parties. French farmers were in favour of lifting the ban.

A two-hour meeting of ministers directly involved in the dispute is believed to have been split down the middle last night. It was Lionel Jospin who finally came down on the side of public safety and decided to keep the ban.

The French government said in a statement that it had decided to put the "safety of consumers first".

It said that the committee of French scientists had expressed fears that some of the new measures agreed with Britain would not take effect immediately. They were also concerned that scientific understanding of BSE was still "developing rapidly" and that unknown methods of transmission of the disease between cattle might still be proved to exist.

In these circumstances, the statement said, the French government was "not in a position today to lift the embargo". It hinted, however, that it might change its mind if it could be satisfied on two points: an enlarged and improved system of tests of cattle for mad cow disease and an immediate adoption of EU rules on the labelling of British beef and the traceability of meat exports to their farm and animal of origin.

These demands will provoke consternation and fury in both London and Brussels. The French agricultural minister Jean Glavany had expressed himself satisfied last month with the progress in exactly these areas.

The Blair government will be furious that - despite being fully aware of the domestic and European consequences to Britain - the Jospin government appears to have taken the path of least political resistance at home. No 10 said last night that Mr Blair had already spoken to Mr Jospin to protest at the French decision.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "We have science and the law on our side and it is regrettable that the French had ignored the science and defied the law. "It now means we have to go through the courts, a process that everyone had hoped to avoid.

"It means too that the French are totally isolated on this issue."

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