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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 10:37 GMT


Beef settlement 'within days'

Nick Brown (left) and Jean Glavany: Negotiations are continuing

The European Commission has launched formal legal proceedings against France for refusing to lift its ban on British beef imports.

Food Row Fears
But the EU food safety commissioner, David Byrne, told MEPs in Strasbourg the decision was "without prejudice" to discussions to end the dispute.

Mr Byrne told the European Parliament he was convinced the ban could be lifted in the near future and has given France two weeks to submit a reply to the Commission's move.

The legal entire process could take as long as two years if France continues to refuse to comply.

The BBC's Justin Webb reports: "All the talk was of the potential deal that could emerge soon"
Negotiations between the two sides are continuing and an agreement - which Mr Byrne says could come in the next few days - would make further legal action unnecessary.

The decision follows a statement from French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany, who said that both sides had reached a provisional accord that would allow Paris to lift the ban, although a few more details were still needed.

Hopes for a breakthrough in the crisis were raised earlier on Tuesday, when Mr Glavany met French officials in Paris. He also said the government would take further advice from its food safety agency before reporting to the Commission.

In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, the French minister said he and his British counterpart, Nick Brown, had done everything possible to "reach a near-agreement" when they met for talks on Monday.

Possible testing system

He said that if the food safety agency gave the green light, "we should be able to lift the embargo in a couple of days".

[ image: David Byrne: Will ask Germany for a timetable to lift its ban]
David Byrne: Will ask Germany for a timetable to lift its ban
Correspondents say the two sides appear to have made progress on two issues that had concerned the French - the traceability of British cattle moving between herds and the labelling of beef.

France still wants more details about possible diagnostic tests for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - or "mad cow disease".

But, according to correspondents, Mr Byrne appears to have offered a way out on this, saying he wanted establish a testing system on an EU-wide basis which would give equal treatment to all countries.

On 1 August, EU ministers ended a three-year ban on exports of British beef, imposed because of an epidemic of BSE.

But France refused to lift the ban, citing its own experts, who said BSE was still a threat.

Germany is the only other EU country to maintain a ban on British beef exports. The country's official position is that it will take steps in the near future to admit the beef but many regional governments have said they are not ready.

Mr Byrne said Germany would be asked for its timetable for lifting its ban.

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