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More at stake than steak: Britain aims to avert trade war

An EU panel began a review yesterday of France's decision to ban British beef.

Jennifer Jones hovers by the meat counter of her local Somerfield supermarket and launches into a proud defense of her country's beef.

"The French are not being fair to our beef farmers," declares the south Londoner. Ms. Jones is boycotting French products because of Paris's refusal to implement a European Union decision to lift a three-year ban on British beef, due to safety concerns.

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"I definitely think the French are being unreasonable," says another patriotic shopper, Sheila Munday.

At stake is more than a piece of steak: The row threatens to erupt into a full blown trade war, souring relations between two EU allies that for generations have loved to hate each other.

The protests began when angry farmers blocked docks at Plymouth and Dorset to try to stop French trucks from entering the country. British supermarkets joined in, withdrawing items from French brie cheese to baguettes from store shelves and announcing that other goods would bear clear labels to aid the consumer boycott. French farmers retaliated on Tuesday, blocking British trucks from entering Calais through the Channel Tunnel.

Hopes for a resolution lie with the EU's scientific steering committee. The panel yesterday began a two-day evaluation of a 600-page report detailing France's reasons for believing that British beef remains unsafe. On Aug 1, the EU's ruling body, the European Commission, lifted a 1996 ban imposed following the scare over "mad cow" disease. Britain maintains its meat is safe to eat.

If the committee rules against Paris, London says it expects the EU to start legal action against the French in the European Court of Justice. But Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has resisted calls for a retaliatory ban on French products. "A tit-for-tat war is in nobody's interests," said Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown in a television interview this week.

Politically, the issue is a sensitive one for the New Labour government. Mr. Blair casts himself as a politician who looks out for the interests of ordinary hardworking people, yet also as a pro-European. The government is desperately seeking to avoid a trade war that would only hurt both sides. Britain purchased some $4 billion in French food and agricultural products last year, while selling $2 billion in such goods to its Continental neighbor.

But recent revelations that the French have, in breach of EU regulations, been using recycled sewage in livestock feed have further angered Britons. Opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague taunted Blair, saying he should stand up for Britain by banning French goods. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown is observing a personal boycott until Paris accepts British beef.

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Paris's failure to lift the March 1996 beef ban is based on genuine concerns but also has an element of political opportunism, says Andrew MacMullen, director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Durham in north England. "In both Germany and France there is still great sensitivity about the health issues, but there is also a protectionist aspect to French agriculture. French farmers are an important industrial group, and any government is bound to take that into account."

The food war is also in a long tradition of Anglo-French rivalry dating back at least to the 1800-1815 Napoleonic Wars. Francophobic fury is evident in the British press. "Blair Snub as Frogs Leg It," read a headline in the tabloid Daily Star. The Daily Mail has splashed "Just Say Non" across its front page as part of a pro-boycott campaign.

Any escalation of food boycotts can only make things worse for struggling farmers. Bob Edwards has seen his business in Ayr, Scotland, collapse around him. Cows that once sold for 600 ($1,000) now fetch less than half that amount. This week French wholesalers started canceling orders for lambs. "I want too get out of farming," he says. "I've just had enough."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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