London (CNSNews.com) - Britain reacted with outraged disbelief Thursday at yet another French refusal to lift a ban on importing British beef, with the government pressing for legal action, and farmers suggesting there was a case for France to be expelled from the European Union.
The EU's executive body, the European Commission, announced in response to the decision it would take France to court.
The French announcement late Wednesday that it would retain its embargo surprised British officials, who said they had been led to believe during discussions in recent weeks they had allayed all the French concerns.
France said its food safety board recommended the ban stay in place because there were still "plausible but not quantifiable risks" involved in eating British beef, contrary to the view of EU scientists.
All 15 other EU members - except Germany, which is due to take a decision later this month - lifted the ban in August. It was first imposed in 1996 because of fears that BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease") could be transmitted to humans, to deadly effect.
EU food commissioner David Byrne said the European Commission would likely next Tuesday give France five days to respond to a formal warning. "If after that the embargo isn't lifted, we're straight into court," he added.
But the legal process is a lengthy one. A verdict could take 18 months or more, after which France could face an enormous fine if found to have contravened EU law.
Byrne said he may seek an interim court injunction of some kind to speed up the process.
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown told lawmakers in London Thursday the decision was "astonishing" and accused France of undermining the credibility of the EU.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a statement France's position flew in the face of science and was against the law. He phoned his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, to protest.
But Jospin told reporters in Paris he was "first and foremost accountable to French people for what I do."
Blair and Jospin are due to meet Friday at a year-end summit of EU leaders in Finland, where the British leader is expected to raise the issue.
Tim Yeo, agriculture spokesman for the opposition Conservatives, said the Labor government had been "weak and incompetent" in its handling of the dispute. "How much longer must Britain tolerate the humiliating spectacle of our prime minister dancing like a
puppet to Monsieur Jospin's tune?" he asked the House of Commons.
In his reaction, National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill questioned France's continued membership of the EU.
"Do they want to be part of a club, and a single market, or do they just want to go on their own way?"
Gill, who went to Brussels Thursday to discuss the matter with European commissioners, called on consumers to send a message by stepping up a boycott of French produce.
"British consumers must show France that they will not take this decision lying down by buying British every time."
At the time the import ban came into effect, France was by far the largest single customer of British beef, buying more than three times the amount of the second largest consumer, Italy.
The ban has had a major impact on British beef farmers, putting many out of business and jeopardizing thousands of jobs.