7 January 2000

France feints as EU starts French court case rolling

By Philip Clarke

LEGAL documents setting out the EU commissions case against France for its continuing ban on British beef were lodged with the European Court this week, signalling the start of full-blown hearings against the Paris government.

But, in a politically astute move, France has launched its own case against the commission, accusing it of failing to take account of fresh information it had presented, so jeopardising consumer health.

The effect is that it will now be almost impossible for Brussels to apply for "interim measures", which would have forced the French to lift their ban, pending the courts final ruling.

"The French are making this a public health issue," said one British official in Brussels. "If they were forced to lift their ban and they then won their case, the commission could be accused of having exposed the French public to unnecessary risk, putting it in a very difficult position."

But the lawyers are believed to be going cold on the idea of interim measures anyway. "If they were granted, the commission would forfeit the right to present certain documents," said Helene Judge of the Meat and Livestock Commissions Brussels office. "Since so much is dependent on the scientific evidence, the commission fears this would weaken its case." It is not prepared to take any chances.

Ms Judge also feared that the running of a parallel French case could slow the whole process down. "The fact there are now two cases means the commissions lawyers will have to spend time preparing a defence, as well as a prosecution."

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference farm minister Nick Brown said that Frances unilateral stance against British beef is riddled with inconsistencies and is undermining its right to lead the EU.

"The French advocate an EU wide food standards agency, yet wont abide by an EU decision. The French claim British beef poses health risks, but didnt vote against lifting the ban in the Council of ministers. The French case relies on an extreme assertion of the precautionary principle which they do not apply to their own domestic food industry," he said.

As we look to a wider EU, what example must it be for a major member state to be seen so blatantly to be disregarding the treaties that bind us together, he said.

Any country that tries to pick and choose which laws to obey will forfeit its role as a leader of our union."

Mr Browns call comes in a week when [link to fw90345]