French win yet more beef talks

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The European Commission today agreed to fresh French demands for yet another round of "technical" talks in a bid to settle the beef crisis.

The European Commission today agreed to fresh French demands for yet another round of "technical" talks in a bid to settle the beef crisis.

Officials from Britain, France and the Commission will gather in Brussels once more tomorrow as Brussels insists that a diplomatic solution is still the best outcome.

However the Commission statement today warned that food safety commissioner David Byrne would launch "the first steps" of legal proceedings next Tuesday if France has not agreed by then to lift the ban on British beef imports.

The demand from Paris for more talks came on the day Mr Byrne had hoped to be hearing from the French that they were now satisfied that UK health and safety measures to safeguard against mad cow disease were considered sufficient.

But now France wants to look once more at some of the details of British cattle monitoring which were fully explained at the last round of talks a week ago.

Mr Byrne discussed the issue in private with Commission president Romano Prodi at Commission headquarters in Brussels this morning.

They both agreed that the search for a diplomatic outcome should continue despite growing pressure to launch legal action immediately in the fact of a continued blatant breach of EU rules.

"The line is clearly that the Commission favours a diplomatic solution," said Mr Prodi's personal spokesman Ricardo Levy.

"We believe that the scientists have already laid down the foundations for a good solution. We are confident that at a diplomatic and political level it will be possible to find a solution."

But Mr Levy added: "It is clear that, should this not end up with success, then the Commissioner will stand up to his responsibilities."

This afternoon Mr Prodi was due to discuss the beef crisis in a telephone call to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Then Mr Prodi goes to Paris for talks with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Chirac.

The long-scheduled meeting was due to discuss future reforms of the European Union - but that has been shoved aside by the continuing beef crisis.

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