29 October 1999

Brussels meeting to rule

on French bans legality

By Philip Clarke

CRUCIAL decisions are expected to be taken in Brussels today (Fri), which should determine the next phase in the increasingly hostile trade row with France over beef.

The European Commissions Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) is set to decide whether there is any evidence to justify the French ban on British beef. If so, officials could then decide to suspend beef exports from Britain.

The move follows the re-examination by the commissions BSE working group of a 600-page document from the French food standards agency. The French government claims the document contains new evidence justifying its ban on British beef.

Conclusions from the working group were passed to the SCC in readiness for a two-day meeting, which started yesterday (Thur). Ahead of the meeting, commission executives were insisting the SSC would reach its decision in its own time, without any pressure from external sources.

That opinion would then shape the commissions response to Frances continued ban on British beef.

"We act on a scientific basis," said a spokeswoman. "If the scientists opinion is clear, it will be more easy for us to act. If it is not clear, it will be more difficult. I cannot predict what the outcome will be."

Assuming the majority side with the UK, however, legal action against the French could be taken within days.

"The new commission will want to stamp its authority, and this is an ideal opportunity," said one Brussels observer.

But whether the start of legal proceedings is enough to persuade the French to lift their ban remains in considerable doubt. Helene Judge, of the Meat and Livestock Commissions Brussels office, said: "I dont think a court case will have any effect on French behaviour. They will argue to the death that the precautionary principle should apply."

The feeling is that the French government wont go against the advice of its own food agency. So whatever happens in Brussels, there will have to be some "good news science" from the UK to prompt a policy change.

That was certainly in the mind of French agriculture minister Jean Glavany when he told journalists in Luxembourg: "One can imagine imports of British beef with stricter controls."

He would not elaborate on what controls, though France is known to favour a herd slaughter policy where BSE cases appear.

Mr Glavany also stressed that, since UK beef export volumes do not threaten the French industry, the decision to maintain the ban was not a protectionist one, but a matter of public health.

He did, however, hope that a compromise could be found "somewhere between the re-imposing of the (EU) ban and the rejection of our scientific arguments".

Despite this, cross-Channel tension has been mounting. On Tuesday, farmers in the north of France staged a "symbolic" blockade of UK freight at Calais, in retaliation for UK farmer actions and supermarket boycotts of French produce.

Mr Glavany also snubbed UK farm minister Nick Brown by pulling out of a meeting planned for tomorrow (Sat).