Anger against France had been simmering in EC national capitals since a senior American negotiator left Brussels on Thursday morning with neither a deal to end the EC-US row over farm trade nor a date for a further meeting.
But it turned into action when John Major, after a half-hour telephone conversation with Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, firmly ordered the European Commission's agriculture chief, Ray McSharry, to go back to the negotiating table. The two heads of government also announced their joint resolve to force the Commission not to allow the talks to die, and to try to prevent the United States from beginning a tit-for-tat trade war.
Meanwhile, an unrepentant France continued the blocking strategy that diplomats say it has pursued ever since last month's narrow referendum in favour of the Maastricht treaty on European union. Michel Sapin, the French Minister of Finance, reiterated yesterday that he believes there can be no compromise before the American presidential election on 3 November.
In talks in Brussels this week, negotiators from the EC and the US had sought to resolve the bilateral differences over farm subsidies that have blocked a wider trade agreement between some 108 countries for almost two years.
But the focus of controversy yesterday moved to the role of the European Commission, which is supposed to act as honest broker between the Community's 12 member states, and to negotiate in the trade round on their behalf.
A spokesman for Jacques Delors, the Commission President, responded angrily to the attack made on him on BBC radio yesterday by Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade. He firmly repudiated Mr Heseltine's allegations that Mr Delors was too close to French interests and his claim that he was prey to 'conflicting loyalties'.
'The President's position is quite consistent with the position adopted by the European Council in Birmingham last week,' he insisted. 'Both want a Gatt deal, but only one that is balanced.' Before the Council, Mr Delors had personally rebutted accusations that he was favouring French interests.
But Mr Delors hinted broadly that he believes the EC (and hence, in particular, France) is being pushed too hard by Washington's negotiators. 'The United States must not think they can bring us to our knees,' he said in Paris yesterday.
Diplomats in Brussels believe this latest row is likely to bring Mr Delors' already strained relations with the British presidency of the EC to a new low. They fear that may only be a prelude, however, to a far more damaging rupture between the EC's members themselves, as patience with France wears thin.
The EC's members are allowed to veto anything they claim would damage their vital national interests. France certainly takes that attitude to the compromise now on offer from the US; whether its partners are ready to overrule it in a meeting of the Council of Ministers remains to be seen.Reuse content