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Friday, 29 October, 1999, 16:53 GMT
Stakes high in cross-channel trade war



By News Online's Dominic Casciani

Food is yet again at the centre of a European trade row - but this time's it's French meat that's also in the spotlight.

Food Row Fears
The beef row between France and the UK has simmered for months as the beleaguered British industry sought to re-enter a market it once dominated.

But the revelation that some French livestock has been reared on feed including human and animal waste has provoked an angry backlash from British beef farmers still blocked from France.

In a matter of weeks, the row has escalated to an unofficial trade ban by British supermarkets, a "lightning" blockade of the Channel tunnel by French farmers and the two ministers at the centre of the beef row not even talking to each other.

Things do not look good for British-French relations and there are genuine fears of a damaging trade war.

Trading partners

The UK is France's second largest market with agricultural or food-related exports worth 2.5bn a year - twice what the UK exports back.

French apples On the front line: French apples have already been hit
France is the UK's third largest market after the US and Germany.

Last year France's trade surplus with the UK reached a record 37.4bn Francs (3.6bn), largely thanks to the strength of the pound.

France has historically been a vital export market for the UK's meat industry and before 1995 it accounted for 40% of the total beef exports. France also uses large quantities of pig products for speciality curing.

In contrast, the UK has always welcomed French wine, cheese and apples - markets now under threat.

On Friday, the Asda supermarket chain intensified its anti-French (it would say pro-British) stance.

The company's chairman is Archie Norman, Europe spokesman for the UK Conservative Party which has called for bans on a range of French meats on grounds of food safety.

British beef in Asda Upping the ante: Supermarkets say they are responding to consumers
Asda, which has not stocked French beef for three and half years, announced a raft of measures including terminating French dough contracts for 2.5m loaves of in-house French bread sold every year. Baguettes will be baked with British dough.

While Asda is not the only supermarket to take action, it said it was not seeking to antagonise the French.

"We have been very supportive of British farmers," a spokesman told BBC News Online.

"These actions are about showing our disappointment at France's refusal to import British beef."

But the supermarket would not comment on whether its actions were aiding and abetting the slide towards a trade war - or whether the government should change its policy.

Feeling the pinch

As apple exporters became the first to lay off staff in the wake of the supermarket moves, the French press reacted furiously.

The agriculture minister Jean Glavany, followed suit and has now cancelled a scheduled meeting with his British counterpart, Nick Brown.

For his part, Mr Brown is maintaining a personal ban on French products.

The Meat and Livestock Commission, representing the beef producers, will not be drawn on the actions of the supermarkets - but told the BBC that the industry did not want a trade war carried out in its name.

And in France, Odile Nicolas-Etienne of the main consumer association, UFC Que-Choisir, said it is stunned by the way the British were behaving.

"The reaction has been very passionate," she said.

"It's quite weird for us because the government's decision (not to allow UK beef imports) is a very scientific and reasonable decision.

"The reaction from the English public seems to be disproportionate when you look at the context in which our decision was taken."

Political fall-out

So how will this play out politically - just weeks after the Prime Minister launched the "Britain in Europe" campaign?

Nick Brown, the argriculture secretary Nick Brown: Remarks considered provocative in France
Ladislas Poniatowski, an opposition member of the French Senate, said that it was essential for both governments not to inflame the situation.

"If your government says 'if you don't want our beef so we won't have your cheese', and then the other says 'well you don't want our cheese so we won't have your whiskey', it is very dangerous," he said.

Mr Poniatowski said that he deplored the demonstrations by France's farmers but added that his countrymen believed that the British press was encouraging the hysteria.

He called on both sides to calm the situation.

But Ben Hall, research director for the Centre for European Reform in London, said that the prospect of an official trade war would remain low.

"Unless there is action by the government, there's not going to be a trade war - even if there is a consumer boycott of all French goods.

"I think that the biggest loser is probably going to be France. There's no way out for (Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin.

"The French presidency of the European Union is only eight months away and it would be absolutely disastrous for the EU to be headed by a country which is not following its own rule of law.

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See also:
10 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: France faces legal challenge
26 Oct 99 |  UK Politics
French food row deepens
25 Oct 99 |  UK
The beef between France and Britain

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