18 February 2000

Germany told to

end ban, or else

By Philip Clarke

GERMANY has been given one month in which to lift its ban on British beef, or face the prospect of full European Court action.

Starting the three-stage legal process this week, EU food safety commissioner, David Byrne wrote to the German government, giving it until "shortly after Mar 17" to explain its position.

March 17 is the date the German upper house of government – the Bundesrat – votes on whether or not to keep the ban.

If it is still in place after that, Brussels will send a "reasoned opinion" to Berlin, demanding the ban be lifted.

And if Germany still fails to comply, as has been the case with France, then the EUCommission will proceed to the European Court in Luxembourg.

But Mr Byrne is confident things will not get this far. "I have had constructive contacts with the German government and the signs are positive," he said on Tuesday (Feb 15). "We can avoid a confrontation if Germany complies quickly with the law."

That cannot be taken for granted. Even though the federal government has already proposed lifting the ban, subject to certain labelling requirements, the final say rests with the regional Lander in the Bundesrat.

German health minister, Andrea Fischer, is confident enough they will vote in favour of lifting the ban. If so, then the decision would be binding on all the states.

But a survey by German newspaper, Die Welt last weekend suggested the opposite. It listed seven of the 16 Lander, including the farming strongholds of Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria, as opposing an end to the beef ban. Given the weighted voting system, these would have enough power to block the proposal.

In particular, they are concerned about labelling. British beef coming in from the UK would be labelled as such. But British beef entering Germany via other member states could lose its identity.

UK farmer representatives have welcomed the commission move. "It is a timely reminder to keep the pressure on the German government," said NFU president, Ben Gill. "They must abide by the law and this shows them the commission does not intend to be mucked around."

But a senior German government source suggested it would make no difference. "The vote on Mar 17 will be purely political," he told FW. "The infringement procedure has no impact on the Lander anyway, as it is against the federal government."

But at least starting legal proceedings now means that, if the Bundesrat continues the ban on British beef, the commission can move on to the next stage of legal action without further delay.