Court urges France to lift UK beef ban
By Philip Clarke
FRANCE has come under renewed pressure to end its unilateral ban on British beef following a new opinion from the European Court of Justice stating its action is illegal.
The latest opinion, which will almost inevitably be confirmed by a full court ruling in three months time, relates to the case brought by the NFU through the French courts.
On each of the questions raised by the NFU, the ECJs advocate general agreed that France had failed to put together a valid argument to justify its action, accusing it of "unilateralism" and a "lack of proportionality".
"The pressure on the French to lift this ban on British beef is immense," said NFU president, Ben Gill. "This has gone far enough. The writing is on the wall for this illegal ban and the government should act now."
Last December, the ECJ ruled in a case taken by the EU commission that France was wrong to continue banning British beef under the date-based export scheme when other member states had reopened borders in August 1999.
But all the evidence is that France is not going to be rushed into changing tack.
Last week, food safety commissioner David Byrne gave his own ultimatum for the ban to be lifted within 15 days, or he would apply to the ECJ for fines of up to k600,000/day (£387,000/day) to be imposed.
In response, French farm minister, Herve Gaymard, said he had already asked for a new opinion from his food standards agency, AFSSA, on the relative safety of British beef. "The French authorities will study this issue in the light of the AFSSA opinion, which will probably be released in September," he said.
On this time frame, the commission will have little option but to press on for fines.
But there is a feeling in France that the government could lift the ban before such penalties bite. "The atmosphere has changed in France since the conservative victory in the election," said Remi Fourrier of the Meat and Livestock Commissions Paris office.
He is optimistic the first British beef will be exported before the end of the year, possibly making its debut at the SIAL show in Paris in October.
Meanwhile, success in the NFUs court case could pave the way for damages claims against the French government, though quantifying the value of lost sales would be difficult, especially since beef exports were justifiably banned for most of last year due to foot-and-mouth. *