Cafe crisis gives summit a bad taste

Anglo-French talks: Major and Chirac to dine at sea as suspected British beef causes closure of famous eatery in Paris

When Jacques Chirac and John Major arranged a Franco-British summit for today, there must have been one subject above all which they wanted to keep off the agenda: beef. Conflicts over BSE are, after all, one of the few issues that cloud one of Britain's better bilateral relationships in Europe.

It was rather unfortunate, then, that on the eve of their meeting, beef slid back on the menu.

It was announced yesterday that the Hard Rock Cafe in Paris had been closed for 15 days by order of the Paris authorities on suspicion of having breached the European embargo on British beef. Some 300kg of suspect meat was found in a freezer at the cafe last week.

The Hard Rock Cafe described the move as "completely unjustified" and said that it would appeal. Its defence is that the beef originated in the Irish Republic, and was packaged in Britain, a procedure which - it says - is permitted under the EU embargo, so long as the company concerned is on an approved list. Its spokesman added that only French beef was used in the cafe's hamburgers.

The French authorities had initially appeared to be considering the cafe's arguments, but changed their mind on Wednesday, when the cafe was ordered to be shut as constituting "a serious risk to public health".

They say that this is the second time the Hard Rock cafe has been found with suspect meat: a raid in June found 500kg of unlabelled beef - itself an offence. This resulted in a warning.

Regardless of the technicalities of the case, the closure of such a high- profile operation as the Hard Rock Cafe in Paris suggests an attempt by the authorities to show that they are enforcing the embargo on British beef.

That the cafe is a foreign, rather than French, operation makes the measure all the more popular. So far, it is mostly French butchers' shops that have been caught with suspect meat, and fined. To target such a prime symbol of Anglo-Saxon culture will have been deeply pleasing to some.

Doubtless Mr Major and Mr Chirac were trying to avoid the subject as they met for dinner last night, ahead of today's more formal talks. After all, beef aside, relations between London and Paris are excellent. The two leaders have roughly similiar ideas on Europe, and military co-operation between Europe's two premier armed powers is racing ahead.

To mark the event, a new naval agreement between Britain and France was signed on board HMS Liverpool, a Type-42 destroyer, in Bordeaux harbour yesterday. The choice of vessel was coincidental, but probably apt: Project Horizon, an air-defence destroyer now under development, is designed primarily to defeat air and missile attack and is expected to form part of European defences against long-range missiles in the next century.

British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Portillo and his French counterpart, Charles Millon, signed the deal under which the chiefs of the British and French navies - Admiral Sir Jock Slater and Admiral Jean- Charles Lefebvre - will supervise joint planning of naval operations, joint exercises, procurement, research and development, and the use of joint British and French naval forces in pursuit of a stronger European defence component within Nato and the Western European Union.

But naval sources yesterday stressed the agreement did not cover nuclear matters although there is co-operation between the two countries in deciding nuclear strategy and shared nuclear patrols

A Franco-British European Air Group , was inaugurated by John Major and President Chirac on 30 October 1995. Because naval operations are centred on ships, a fixed headquarters is not needed. The Royal Navy said yesterday it would mean building on common procedures and means of communication.

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