Britain won a key battle in the Great Beef War today as a European Union committee decided unanimously that there is no scientific justification for France's import ban against British beef.
The ruling poses a political dilemma for French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who must now take the next step in a trade dispute that has escalated in the past two weeks from fairly comical name-calling to angry economic warfare.
If he chooses to end the embargo against British beef, Jospin would rebuff his own Food Safety Agency, the last official body in Europe that contends that British beef is unhealthy. But to continue the embargo would mean France, one of the strongest champions of a united Europe, would set a precedent for any country that wants to flout EU mandates.
Jospin and French Agriculture Minister Louis Le Pensec were in Guadalupe today and had no immediate comment on the ruling.
But the decision by the EU's 16-member Scientific Steering Committee is a big victory for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been bashed daily by his political opponents and anti-Europe newspapers here for his refusal to impose a counter-embargo against French imports. Blair argued that a retaliatory ban would violate EU rules and spark a wider trade war.
Tonight, he was able to say that his "statesmanlike" approach to the beef dispute had been vindicated. "It shows that when we make our case forcibly, but also sensibly and fairly, and we stick to the law, we get the right, good result," Blair said.
The epidemic of mad cow disease in British herds in the mid-1990s led to bans on beef sales around the world--including in Britain. The government and farmers here have spent billions of dollars to rebuild the domestic industry, and the effort seemed to pay off in August when an EU health committee ruled that British beef is safe to eat. This fall, beef exports to the European continent began again.
But the French food agency would not accept the EU certification--or the British beef. Germany, taking the French agency's advice, also blocked imports.
Britain responded by going back to the EU, and the committee in Brussels sided with the British farmers today. France could now face EU sanctions. But Jospin's bigger problem may be the impact of his stance on the EU's governing authority.
Britain and France have been battling over one thing or other since the Normans landed at Hastings in 1066, and both sides seem to enjoy a good cross-channel fracas now and then. The beef battle has sparked flag-burnings, farmer blockades of highways and a rich outpouring of insults.
In Britain, where the sport of French-bashing is as popular as fox-hunting, the tabloids have been urging consumers to "just say non" to all French imports. Invoking the famous message that Admiral Nelson gave his crew before sinking the French fleet at Trafalgar, the Daily Mail newspaper has run the daily headline "England expects every shopper to do their duty." Others have paraphrased King Henry V's exhortation as he charged into the breach at the siege of Harfleur: "Cry God for Harry, English beef, and St. George!"
In perhaps the sharpest blow of all, the British papers this week even alleged that Joan of Arc was a fraud, trumpeting a new history that alleges that her real enemy was the French, not the British.
The French press has joined this literary sloganeering with elan. One of the most obvious English puns of the whole dispute, in fact, comes from the French daily Liberation: "To Beef or Not to Beef."
All of that was fun, in its way. But as the media and the grocery chains in both countries stepped up the talk of boycotts and trade war, the two governments began to worry out loud that things were getting out of hand.