22 March 2002

Phase 2 under way to stop French ban

EU food safety commissioner, David Byrne, has launched the next stage of legal action against France for continuing to ban British beef in defiance of last Decembers European court ruling.

But it could still be months, if not years, before France reopens its borders, or is penalised for its illegal embargo.

Speaking at this weeks farm council in Brussels, Mr Byrne said: "This is no longer a question of a ban on British beef, but a question of whether a member state is going to respect the rules of the EU."

His patience had clearly run out following comments last week from new French agriculture minister, Francois Patriat, that he had no intention of lifting the ban ahead of national elections in May and June.

Mr Byrne sent an official warning letter to the French government, though this was expected to be a formality.

France now has 30 days, to lift its ban. If it still fails to respond, the commission will send a "reasoned opinion", explaining why it believes France is in default.

The French government will then have another two months, after which the commission would apply to the European Court for a second case to set the level of fines.

These would be based on the seriousness and length of the infringement and the offending countrys ability to pay, and would mount up daily from the date of the second court ruling.

The court would also have an option to impose a penalty, backdated to its original decision against France last December.

The whole process could take two years and has clearly had little impact on Mr Patriat. Speaking to journalists in Brussels this week, he again insisted that France would not lift its ban before the summer, adding that, only when the UK starts testing all over-30-month cattle for BSE would he consider reopening the borders.

Despite the action taken by Mr Byrne NFU president Ben Gill branded the situation as an "intolerable farce".

"We have already had a ruling – France is breaking the law." &#42

"That we now have to go through many more months of legal argument and procrastination is ridiculous. If the system is to blame then it needs to be changed," said Mr Gill.