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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 05:52 GMT 06:52 UK
Paris talks raise British beef hopes
Jacques Chirac (left) and Tony Blair
The two leaders dined together in Paris
Talks in Paris between Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have raised hopes that France's ban on British beef could be lifted.

The UK prime minister was in Paris for his first face-to-face talks since President Chirac's centre-right coalition swept to power in last week's parliamentary elections.


We spoke very frankly with the wish to find a solution acceptable to both parties

Jacques Chirac about Sangatte

The French ban on British beef imports, branded "wholly illegal" by Mr Blair, was discussed at the working dinner, and Mr Chirac gave signs the embargo was soon to be reconsidered.

The two leaders also talked about how to resolve problems over the Sangatte refugee camp, which the UK Government wants closed.

The British beef dispute, which stems from fears of BSE, goes back further than the concerns over the troubled refugee centre.

'No reason for ban'

Earlier, Mr Blair said that if the French government would not budge in the dispute, the European Commission would take action against the "illegal ban".

"There is no reason whatever for this ban to remain - no reason in science, no reason in common sense, no reason in law," he told MPs.

As the two leaders spoke together to reporters, Mr Chirac revealed that the French food agency, AFSA, were now due to produce a new review of the case "at the end of the month".

Cow
French ban on British beef continues
That timetable is much sooner than British officials expected and BBC News correspondent Jon Sopel says they are now optimistic the problem might at last be going away.

But AFSA is known for being independent minded so the UK government will be cautious about being too hopeful nearly a year since the European Court said that France should lift its ban.

David Lidington, shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, said he hoped the review would lead to the ban been lifted "swiftly".

"The fact remains that the ban is illegal in both European and French law - it should be rescinded now," he said.

The Paris talks come ahead of this weekend's European Union summit in Seville, which is set to be dominated by concerns about immigration.

Immigration answers?

The Sangatte camp - the launching pad for many illegal attempts by asylum seekers to enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel, has been a controversial issue in UK-French relations.

There were no signs the problem had been solved but Mr Blair said they were working in "close co-operation" on immigration questions.

Mr Chirac said: "We spoke very frankly with the wish to find a solution acceptable to both parties."

Home ministers from both countries were engaged in "extremely deep" efforts and "each has the will to resolve the problem in a way that conforms to human rights and our reciprocal interests".

Closer links

France's new interior minister Nicolas Sarozy has already indicated the new government will consider closing the camp.

Mr Blair wants new curbs on illegal immigration on a Europe-wide basis - an issue likely to be hotly debated at Seville.

That would include a stronger link between EU aid to poorer countries and willingness on the part of those countries to accept back their deported nationals.

The resounding victory for the centre-right coalition in last weekend's French parliamentary elections freed Mr Chirac from the constraints of his "cohabitation" with the centre-left.

Mr Blair described ties between the UK and France as "much closer than they were for a certain number of decades".

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Sopel in Paris
"Officials are optimistic"
See also:

19 Jun 02 | UK Politics
17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
23 May 02 | Europe
24 May 02 | Europe
17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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