March 16, 2002 The Guardian (London) by Ian BlackBeef put in its obligatory appearance at the EU summit yesterday when Tony Blair urged France to drop its now illegal ban on imports.
He took time off from efforts to modernise the European economy to ask the president of the European commission, Romano Prodi, to ensure that Paris complies with a court ruling ordering it to reopen its markets to British beef exports.
The prime minister also raised the issue during talks with President Jacques Chirac, but British officials said later there was no sign of progress. Mr Blair told reporters that beef remained a serious problem, adding: "This is an issue in which the rest of Europe is with Britain."
It is the common belief in Barcelona that France will do nothing that would be controversial domestically until after Mr Chirac and Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister and rival candidate for the presidency, have fought their election battle over the next two months.
The French government said last week it would continue to ban British beef imports on health grounds, despite a decision by the European court of justice in Luxembourg that this was illegal. Its agriculture minister, Francois Patriat, said that France still did not have confidence that the meat was safe.
The commission could open a new case against France and it could potentially be liable for large fines - although the commission also recognises that the election means that nothing can move quickly.
"Our job is to uphold the law and that is what we will do," Mr Prodi's spokesman said. "We will act promptly."
If the case does go back to court, the legal process would take at least several months.
British farmers have expressed outrage at the ban. The commission imposed a worldwide ban on British beef exports in 1996, at the height of the outbreak of mad cow disease. After the implementation of control measures, Britain was allowed to resume limited exports in 1999, but France maintained the ban.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is thought to be transmitted by meat from infected animals being used in cattle feed.
It first surfaced in Britain in the 1980s and is linked to a human disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has killed about 100 people in Europe. They are believed to have become infected by eating infected meat.
Special report on BSE guardian.co.uk/bse