Officials chew over wording of beef war treaty

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Hopes remained high yesterday of a rapid settlement in the beef dispute, despite the start of European Union legal proceedings against France.

Hopes remained high yesterday of a rapid settlement in the beef dispute, despite the start of European Union legal proceedings against France.

The French minister for Europe, Pierre Moscovici, said an agreement between Britain and France was "very close". Paris had asked for further assurances from Britain on its promise to speed up the introduction of new diagnostic tests for BSE, which will be used throughout the EU from next April. Contacts between London and Paris were "on the right road", he said.

Officials in London, Paris and Brussels continued to discuss by telephone the texts of the deal to end the French boycott.

However there was no phone contact between the British and French agriculture ministers, Nick Brown and Jean Glavany, indicating that the terms of the agreement have not quite been finalised.

One source in Brussels argued that the outline of a deal has been fleshed out, but it is up to Paris to make the next formal move to accept.

The European Commissioner for health and consumer protection, David Byrne, will hold a brief meeting today with the German health minister, Andrea Fischer, over Berlin's failure to remove its embargo.

The Government received a boost when the Norwegian agriculture ministry decided to lift its ban on British beef. Although Norway was never a significant market for UK meat, a British official welcomed the decision, arguing: "This bears out the scientific analysis contained in the latest analysis of the scientific steering committee."

On Tuesday, Brussels decided to initiative legal action against the French, and to send a letter to the German government demanding clarification of its intentions.

Berlin has argued that it intends to lift the ban, but has yet to get the necessary measures through its upper house of parliament as is required by its constitution.

The package agreed between the two countries and the European Commission - "additional guarantees" according to the French; "clarifications" according to the British - still have to be approved by the French scientists who started the crisis in the first place.

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