21 January 2000

No injunction against French

BRUSSELS has decided not to apply for "interim measures" against France, which would have forced it to lift its ban on British beef while the European Court case is in progress.

According to officials, commission lawyers believed they were unlikely to be successful. "Existing case law demonstrates that, when there are public health concerns, the court is unwilling to grant an injunction," said commission spokeswoman, Beate Gminder.

Furthermore, the commission feared that, if it applied to the court in Luxembourg and was turned down, that would be interpreted by the media as a victory for France – a risk it considered not worth taking.

"It is very disappointing, but we can understand the reasons," said NFU Brussels director, Julie Smith. "The French are saying British beef is too dangerous to go on their market. It would be very difficult for the court to say no its not and force the French to allow it before the case had even been heard."

Other observers were less charitable, however. "Food commissioner, David Byrne, is being weak," claimed conservative MEP and agriculture spokesman, Robert Sturdy. "I believe he has been manipulated by the UK government which is more concerned about maintaining smooth relations with the rest of the Europe, than fighting for our beef farmers."

Without the injunction, the French ban stays in place while the court case runs its course. Normally this would take two years, but there is still hope that the process could be fast-tracked.

According to Ms Smith, the commission has two options – to apply for "accelerated procedures" or to claim an "urgent oral hearing".

"The accelerated approach would mean that the commission would request the court to skip some of the paperwork and put more emphasis on the oral stage," she explained. "The trouble with this is there are few precedents and it is not what the court is used to. There is also the danger that, if the French were to submit an incomplete dossier, the commission may not be able to demand its inclusion."

The more likely option, therefore, would be for the commission to apply for an urgent oral hearing, under which the president of the European Court could shuffle the case to the top of the list, once the written procedures have been completed.

"Even this could take 18 months," said Ms Smith. "Its really frustrating, but it would be even worse if, after all that time, the French got away with it on a technicality."

Meanwhile, the NFU is continuing to examine the possibility of taking a separate case in the French courts to get the ban lifted, as well as ways of suing for damages.

* Germany has decided to postpone its vote on whether or not to lift its ban on British beef from Feb 4 to March 17. &#42