30 June 2000

French have a right to the presidency

With France continuing to ban imports

of British beef, questions are being

raised over its right to hold the EUs six-

month rotating presidency. The view in

Brussels is that the two are not related,

as Europe editor, Philip Clarke, explains

AS France prepares to take over the presidency of the EU next Tuesday, farmer organisations such as the NFU have stepped up their attacks on that countrys right to hold such high office.

Animal health committee chairman Neil Cutler, for example, travelled to Paris recently to voice his disapproval at the continuing ban on British beef. "Member states cannot simply pick and choose the laws they will and will not obey," he said. "Frankly, we cannot see how you can properly assume the presidency of the EU from July."

President, Ben Gill, followed this up by sharply criticising UK local authorities for allowing French markets to be held in their areas.

It is easy to understand their frustration, especially when all other member states – including the reluctant Germans – have lifted their bans on British beef. But while the NFUs campaign is well intentioned, sadly, to suggest that France should skip its turn in the EUs rotating chair is not realistic.

Indeed, if all countries with outstanding cases against them in the European Court were barred from the presidency, the EU would be effectively leaderless.

Yes, the case against France is particularly high profile and looks pretty clear-cut. But even at the time of the UKs presidency in 1998 there were several cases overhanging our government and companies for breaches of EU law.

The view in Brussels, therefore, is that France has as much right to the presidency as anyone else. And the expectation is that it will be business-like and efficient.

As one of the EUs founders, it has experience in handling complex agricultural portfolios. And as one of the biggest members, it has the influence to move things along.

There is a question mark over the credibility of French farm minister, Jean Glavany, who will head up the agriculture council. His fickle behaviour last autumn over the ban on British beef, and his bullying tactics over beef labelling have won him few friends among the other 14 council ministers.

He has also rubbed his own farmers up the wrong way over BSE, talking publicly about a mysterious "third way" of transmitting the disease, but without offering a shred of evidence to support his theory.

As such, he was hotly tipped to be ousted in a recent French cabinet reshuffle, but managed to hold on to his post – just.

But given that France will hold the presidency, what will be its priorities? In general terms, it will continue reforming the EUs decision-making process to cope with enlargement to the east and it will work towards increased employment and social cohesion.

For agriculture, its main objectives are likely to be food safety, with the emphasis on a new European Food Authority, and protecting European farm supports from further reform within the World Trade Organisation.

As for the CAP, the French presidency will inherit the prickly problem of flax and hemp reform, something that should have already been dealt with by the Portuguese, and must deliver a revised sugar regime by Dec 31.

A new EU-wide system of beef labelling is also due to come into force in the next six months, something the French have been pushing hard for.

And of considerable importance to the UK is the sheepmeat regime, which missed out under Agenda 2000, but which the commission is studying with a view to reform.

In many of these areas there will be shared interests with UK farmers. Whatever the anger over Frances continuing ban on British beef, and the slyness of some of the characters involved, UK representatives will need to work with the presidency to achieve a satisfactory outcome. &#42