France to lift ban on British beef? ban
By Philip Clarke Europe editor
FRANCE has been given just 15 days to lift its ban on British beef or face the next stage of legal proceedings leading to fines.
In a formal "reasoned opinion" sent to Paris on Wednesday (June 26), EU food safety commissioner David Bryne sets out why France is out of order and gives it the shortest time allowable in which to respond.
The action follows the Euro-pean Court of Justice ruling last December that the unilateral beef ban is illegal and a follow-up warning from the commission in March which France continues to defy.
But signs are emerging that the new French government is preparing to lift the ban of its own accord.
Following a dinner with Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, French president Jacques Chirac confirmed that a new opinion was being sought on the relative safety of British beef from the French food standards agency, AFSSA. This should be available in the next few weeks.
"We believe France is now trying to find a solution because it realises it will soon be hit by fines," said Meat and Livestock Commission export manager Peter Hardwick. "We also detect a significant political shift. Leaders of some key trade organisations, including pro-Chirac conservative Pierre Chevallier, have sent positive signals that they are keen to be helpful."
Further pressure will come to bear on the French next week, when the advocate general of the ECJ issues his opinion in the separate case taken against France by the NFU. Launched in February 2000, it seeks to overturn the ban and maybe win compensation for British farmers and traders.
Certain key aspects of the case were referred by the French Conseil dEtat to the ECJ last summer for clarification, including the question of whether it was permissible for France to interrupt the free-movement of goods in order to protect human health.
"We fully expect that the new opinion will be in line with the courts ruling last December – that the ban is illegal," said legal adviser Robert Madge. "Obvious- ly we will have to wait for the full ruling in two to three months time. But we hope by then the political objective will have been achieved and France will have lifted the ban."
If not, it will then be up to the Conseil dEtat to set a level of daily fines on the French government for being in breach of court.
"We could also consider applying for damages at that stage," said Mr Madge. *