The battle is won, but the war is far from over

Click to follow

In theory, yesterday's vote of confidence in British beef should open the doors to a lucrative new market for UK beef exporters. In practice, things will be a lot more complicated.

In theory, yesterday's vote of confidence in British beef should open the doors to a lucrative new market for UK beef exporters. In practice, things will be a lot more complicated.

The 16 members of the European Union scientific steering committee, who delivered their verdict last night, undoubtedly did the British Government a huge favour. Few had expected such a clear and unambiguous statement, particularly after the preparatory group of specialists that met on Monday was divided.

But the question is how France will react - and whether that will help or hinder the prospects of re-establishing a once-valuable export market. With the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, on a visit to Guadeloupe, a colony in the Caribbean, the French government is being given several days to digest the findings of the committee.

Paris' dilemma is acute. It established the independent food safety agency, which initiated the crisis by ruling British beef unsafe. Contradicted yesterday by the EU's scientists, the credibility of the organisation is now on the line.

Asked yesterday whether consumers in France should now trust their own food agency or Europe's verdict, the French chairman of the EU scientific steering committee, Gérard Pascal, was forced to reply: "I don't know."

Paris is unlikely, therefore, to lift the ban without referring the matter back to its scientists. It could then hold out, and face action in the European Court, or seek to win some concessions- over labelling from the UK, and testing for BSE from the European Commission. All the indications last night were that the second course of action is most likely.

Some compromise is in Britain's interest because the resumption of meat exports has been lamentably slow. St Merryn Meat Ltd near Truro said trade is "not bad, but slow". Britain's only other exporter, Bryson Meats, in Midlothian, Scotland, claimed sales of a ton a week to the Netherlands and Belgium. All this is a far cry from the days before BSE.

According to the European Commission, Britain exported 105,803 tons of beef to France in 1985. Trade for that year to the EU was the equivalent of 202,500 tons, worth £457m.

When the BSE crisis broke in 1996, exports plummeted. Brussels says that just 21,866 tons was going to the EU before the worldwide ban on exports was put in place. Now even those figures look good.

British beef is banned around most of the globe and, outside the EU, only Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Mauritius, the Czech Republic and Cyprus are potential customers.

This all underlines the massive task facing the meat trade in the wake of the Anglo-French row. A succession of French ministers - up to and including Mr Jospin - has pointed out that simply lifting the ban will not overcome consumer resistance.

Pursuing France to the European Court of Justice would probably take years. France'sdefence would rest on arguments that British beef has not been proven safe, producing more negative publicity.

With the stick of court action held out against Paris, Brussels is now looking to offer the odd carrot. Compromises floated last night by the EU health commissioner, David Byrne, include a voluntary scheme to label British beef exports to France, building on plans to tighten the labelling regime in the UK. Mr Byrne also said he plans to introduce "EU-wide diagnostic testing for BSE".

One commission source argued yesterday: "The ideal outcome is one where Britain and France reach an agreement arising out of the scientific report, one which includes face-saving all round. That way [Paris] will implement it and sell it to their public."

The British meat industry seems to concur. Ray Barrowdale, a spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission, argues "being drawn into a trade war or discussion on food safety can have a knock-on effect, even into neighbouring markets. It is in everyone's interests to settle this as quickly and amicably as possible."