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Monday, October 25, 1999 Published at 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK

UK Politics

Brown faces crisis over French meat

Tory Euro-MPs protesting over the French beef ban

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown is in danger of being swept aside over the French food crisis by a tidal wave of public opinion.

Resentment at the way France has defied Brussels and continued to ban British beef has escalated in the wake of the revelation that French farmers have been feeding their animals human sewage and banned drugs.

There are also claims that German farmers have been adopting similar practices and may get dragged into the crisis.

A "Buy British" campaign is set to be launched by the NFU and consumers and some shopkeepers are already taking action against French imports themselves.

There is now a real worry that, unless the government takes some direct action against Paris, the two countries will stumble into an undeclared full-scale trade war which could easily flare up into a Europe-wide battle.

And Mr Brown's "personal" declaration that he will not be buying French produce has seen him isolated in government with other ministers fearing he is fanning the flames of a tit-for-tat war.

There is also the increasing prospect of more French-style demonstrations by British farmers, many of whom have seen their livelihoods virtually destroyed by the continuing beef ban.

Unilateral ban

And Mr Brown's protestations that there is no proof that the French meat is dangerous to human health is cutting little ice with either farmers or consumers.

[ image: Nick Brown: Isolated over boycott]
Nick Brown: Isolated over boycott
He is now under immense pressure to unilaterally ban French imports until all the evidence has been weighed and there is absolute proof that the produce is safe.

But he is caught in a dilemma because this is exactly the action being taken by the French against British beef and which has cause such anger amongst farmers.

Mr Brown is relying on Brussels finding in Britain's favour and insisting that France follows the law and lifts the ban on British beef.

His position will be significantly weakened if, before that judgement comes through, he takes the same sort of action he is complaining about.

He is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea - stick within the rules and face growing anger from the agriculture industry and shoppers, or take unilateral action against France and undermine Britain's case in Brussels and find himself tarred with the same brush as the French.

Many demanding the ban, of course, have little time for these arguments.

Flouting laws

They believe that too many EU countries have for years been flouting free market regulations and other Brussels' rules with little or no action ever taken against them.

Britain, on the other hand, can show it is amongst the most law-abiding in the union and sticks to the rules.

Mr Brown is clearly doing all he believes he can at this stage but his personal declaration that he will not be eating French meat has led to allegations he is flouting government policy.

And that could see him ultimately left at loggerheads with Tony Blair over what actually constitutes a policy.

And it is certain his controversial comments will not be enough to pacify farmers and consumers and he is certain to come under increasing pressure to go down the same route as the French.

That could spark a serious crisis within the EU and see other countries rapidly dragged into the furore.

Not for the first time, the solution is in the hands of the European Commission, which can act swiftly to solve both the issue of the British beef ban and the safety of French meat.

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25 Oct 99 | UK Politics
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