Decision soon on court action against French
By Philip Clarke
EUROPEAN food safety commissioner, David Byrne, will decide next Tuesday (Nov 16) whether court action is needed to force France to lift its ban on British beef.
Initially he had requested a response from Paris by yesterday (Thursday) on commission demands for it to end its unilateral trade embargo. As FW went to press on Wednesday, it was looking increasingly unlikely that France would meet those demands. Certainly the timetable appeared to be slipping.
A government spokesman told reporters in Paris that an immediate lifting of the ban was impossible, as the conditions set by France in the name of disease prevention and health were not being met.
This reinforced earlier comments by consumer affairs minister, Marylise Lebranchu, who said France would prefer to face legal action than sign up to something that did not satisfy safety demands. She added that trying to hold France to a specific timetable was also unhelpful.
But British embassy sources in Paris tried to calm the situation, saying ministers were still weighing up the options and French policy had not hardened.
There was, however, a growing acceptance that the timetable could slip. French farm minister, Jean Glavany, had been in Washington. And Thursday was a Bank Holiday in France.
According to Remi Fourrier of the British Meat office in Paris, it was more likely that France would make its final position clear next Monday, (Nov 15) when there is a meeting of agriculture ministers in Brussels.
In the absence of a response, or if that response is negative, the commission will have little choice but to launch legal action when it meets in Strasbourg next Tuesday. "It is not for the French government to set new conditions," said UK farm minister, Nick Brown. "If they are not able to lift the ban, then we will have to pursue our case through the courts."
That was certainly the top priority of NFU president, Ben Gill, this week. "Commissioner Byrne confirmed to me that legal action would be the next step," he said, after a meeting in Brussels. "The French have had quite long enough to consider the facts. Further delays are unacceptable."
He added that to move to legal action would amount to failure for common sense and diplomacy. The scientific steering committee had confirmed two weeks ago that the date-based export scheme was sufficient to guarantee the safety of British beef. And a meeting of experts last Friday had clarified the areas the French still had difficulties understanding.
On Wednesday, Mr Gill handed in a petition of 5000 farmer signatures to the European Parliaments UK office, calling on MEPs to help overturn the illegal French ban. *