21 December 2001

French beef ban stays for now

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

FRANCE is likely to be given several more months in which to lift its ban on British beef, despite being told by Europes highest court it is acting illegally.

The historic ruling came late last week. Luxembourg lawyers said France had "failed to fulfil its obligations" by blocking sales of beef, approved under the date-based export scheme.

"I expect France to implement the judgement and lift the ban on the import of British beef," said EU food safety commissioner, David Byrne. Refusal to do so would allow the commission to pursue fines, through a follow-up case in the European courts.

But Brussels sources suggest the commission is prepared to give the Paris government several more months in which to comply. "The protocol is that France must have a "reasonable period" in which to lift its ban," said one UK official. "It is not specified what is reasonable, but previous experience suggests two to six months."

French farm minister, Jean Glavany, certainly appears in no hurry. Speaking on French radio insisted protecting consumers was his number one priority and France still had the right to invoke the "precautionary principle".

He would have to study the ruling and consult his food safety advisers. He also wants to see the results of UK tests on over-30-month cattle, to give a clearer picture of the epidemiological situation.

Remi Fourrier of the Meat and Livestock Commission in Paris believes there is no chance of France lifting its ban until after the parliamentary elections next June. Mr Glavany has too much to lose. But following a change of minister or a change of government next summer, it might give way then.A spokeswoman for Mr Byrne said the commission would wait to see the reaction of the French before deciding whether to apply for fines. "But we are not in the business of setting deadlines," she added.

If fines were applied, they would be worked out to a strict formula, taking into account the seriousness of the offence and the capability of the member state to pay. Such penalties have only been used once before, when Greece was charged k20,000 (£12,300) a day for breaching of environmental law.

Meanwhile, the NFUs separate case in the French courts, which could result in compensation to British farmers for lost business, will now be reactivated. &#42

"This has been referred to the European Court for clarification on certain points of law," said NFU lawyer, Robert Madge. "When those questions are answered, it will be returned to the Conseil dEtat in Paris. If they decide there has been a flagrant breach of law, the Conseil has power to award damages."

Written evidence has already been submitted by the NFU to Luxembourg and an oral hearing is expected in the New Year. &#42