From Waterloo to dinner table


Defiance: The European Union has lifted a ban imposed because of "mad cow disease," but France still won't admit British beef.

January 16, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- When your relationship is forged on battlefields like Hastings, Agincourt and Waterloo, there are bound to be a few ups and downs over the years.

The British and French just love a good spat.

They're in the middle of another one these days, over beef. That's bully to the British, entrecote to the French.

More than three years after the "mad cow disease" crisis devastated Britain's beef industry, British beef is back on the world market courtesy of the European Union, which lifted an export ban in August.

But the French don't want the product invading their shores. They're keeping it out of their butcher shops, restaurants and family kitchens. They're even willing to go to court for the right to retain their British beef ban because of health concerns.

"My beef is perfectly edible, and they're accusing me of trying to poison them," British farmer David Ashcroft says. "We may have fought the French for 2,000 years, but I wouldn't want to poison them."

The British-French beef squabble, which has been simmering through the fall and winter, is another reminder of the rocky history between neighbors separated by water and divided by language and culture.

If Britain has a "special relationship" with the United States, what sort of partnership does it have with France, its other major ally during two world wars?

"It's special as well," says historian Alan Sked of the London School of Economics. "They're our traditional enemy, until the Germans intervene."

By the standards of the Anglo-French relationship, with its invasions, counterstrikes and Hundred Years War, the food fight is a blip. The governments are seeking to play down the controversy as the issue heads to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

"There is an effort not to overdramatize the issue. The French government is in an awkward position. It wants to improve the French-English relationship," says Philipe Moreau-Defirges, senior fellow on European issues for the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.

The struggle has been filled with soothing words by political leaders and patriotic posturing by the British tabloids.

An informal British boycott of French goods fizzled; Britons headed to the continent to fill Christmas orders for fine wine and cheese, while two British supermarket chains admitted they were selling French turkeys.

French President Jacques Chirac even held out the ultimate fig leaf in November. "I can tell you that at such time as the embargo is lifted, it will be a great pleasure for me to order British beef in order to serve it to my friends, particularly if they are British," Chirac said.

The French, noting safety concerns, are flouting the 15-member European Union, which lifted its three-year ban on sales of British beef in August. Germany also hasn't lifted the ban, although it claims the delay is because of the bureaucracy that accompanies parliamentary ratification.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, somewhat belatedly launched the court case Jan. 5 to force France to lift the ban. In a counterclaim, France contends the European Commission failed to heed scientific evidence from French experts and thus threatened the health of European consumers. The case could be buried in the court for up to 18 months.

For the British, the current tussle over beef reflects their continued ambivalence and insecurity about dealing with Europe. Many here view it as a great place to vacation, but do they really want to be ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels, the seat of the EU?

Prime Minister Tony Blair is Britain's most pro-European leader in a generation, his fluency in French enabling him to speak to the French in their own language. Blair has declined to engage in any point-scoring with the French.

Even at the height of the squabble late last year, Britain and France moved forward with plans to create a permanent autonomous European defense force. The proposed 50,000- to 60,000-member force would enable Europe to intervene in conflicts and areas that NATO might not be willing to enter.

But there is at least one European issue where Blair must move slowly. Britain continues to put off a decision on joining the continent's fledgling single currency, the euro.

"This [beef battle] doesn't make Blair's job any easier," Sked says. "All these things anger public opinion. The support for joining the euro is way down. If they held a referendum on the euro, they'd lose it."

For the French, the issue is one of public health. "The French population wants to be sure of everything and avoid uncertainty," Moreau-Defirges says. "It's the precautionary principle. The population wants to live in a sure world, no risk."

Laurent Lemarchand, spokesman at the French Embassy in London, says beef should not come between the two neighbors.

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