France and Britain have been engaged in an exceptionally nasty food fight. Passions are high on both sides of the English Channel and Britain’s famed tabloids have done their best to push them into the stratosphere. Their inflammatory rhetoric is being matched by the showmanship of French farmers, who are the equal of any British headline writer in temperament and tactics. Ostensibly the beef is about beef — British beef and the French fear that it might still be tainted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.” In reality, the spat is about much larger questions: French people’s trust in their government and Britain’s concern about its place in the European Union. That means that, despite the best efforts of politicians in London and Paris, the dispute may continue to escalate.

In 1996, the EU imposed an embargo on British beef after reports that it was infected with BSE and had passed the disease onto humans. Twenty-six people have died of the disease in Britain, where virtually all BSE cases in Europe have been reported. Britain responded by culling its herds. After further study, the European Commission lifted the ban this summer, but France and Germany refused to go along.

The French claimed they had “new evidence” that the embargo was lifted prematurely, but late last month the EU’s 18-member Scientific Steering Committee disagreed. It unanimously concluded that there was no scientific evidence justifying continuation of the French ban. French officials kept that bar up anyway, sparking a crisis between London and Paris, as well as between France and the EU.

Working with the EU’s health and consumer-protection commissioner, French and British officials have worked out a compromise. Under the plan, EU, British and French experts have examined the reliability of Britain’s “date-based export scheme.” After receiving assurances from London, the French government has submitted a report to its food safety agency. A decision on lifting the ban is expected early next month. A solution that calls for testing, labeling and tracing the beef will be adopted to save face for all concerned.

The damage will have been done, however, and not merely to Britain’s beef industry. For Britain, this controversy concerns more than a temporary resurgence of the country’s traditional enmity toward the French. The beef is a surrogate for British debate over its participation in the entire European project. Britain remains deeply divided over the EU, and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s push to participate in the euro could become the issue that finally rejuvenates the anemic Conservative Party. At the Tory convention earlier this fall, the EU was the only issue around which the party could rally. French intransigence on beef has made real all the British fears about loss of sovereignty.

For the French, this dispute is more than the latest in a long series of snubs toward London, which began with Charles de Gaulle’s famous “non” to British membership in the European Community in the early 1960s. Of course, there are opportunistic farmers eager to exploit any agriculture-related crisis for their own benefit; raising fears of foreign products is a time-tested technique. Once the name-calling begins, they are only too happy to use that as well.

But the real issue in France is the integrity of the country’s regulatory system. The government is still trying to recover from the scandal concerning HIV-tainted blood. To restore public trust, it established a new food and safety agency. This body recommended continuing the ban. If the government rides roughshod over its determinations, the entire confidence-building exercise will have been for nothing. British protesters should recall that the previous Tory government had its own scandal concerning BSE, in which it was accused of covering up findings by its own experts.

There are other complications. Eleven of Germany’s 16 Lander (states) also oppose lifting a national ban on British beef. Since the Lander vote in the upper house of Parliament, Germany is also likely to continue the embargo, for at least a short while.

Fortunately, politicians on both sides of the channel realize that no one will profit from this dispute. There are no points to be won, and the danger of an escalation in tension is real. Europe has much to do in the weeks and months ahead on a wide range of issues — from trade talks to enlargement of the EU to security — and France and Britain have to work together if anything is to be accomplished.

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