France faces EU court over UK beef ban

France faces EU court over UK beef ban

June 18, 2001 Press Association by Geoff Meade

France is in the dock at the European Court of Justice tomorrow, accused of breaking EU law by refusing to import British beef.

The long-awaited case follows French determination to maintain a ban on UK beef despite an "all-clear" sounded by the Brussels Commission at the end of the crisis over mad cow disease.

The unilateral French blockade infuriated Prime Minister Tony Blair and raised a political storm over the ability of a founding EU member state to flout a binding EU law.

Britain may often carp at the EU, but it honours agreements once they have been made - unlike the French, say UK government officials.

France insisted, and still insists, that its own health and safety findings take precedence over those of EU scientific experts.

The fact that the chairman of the EU expert committee which cleared BSE was a Frenchman added to the fury in London and at Commission headquarters in Brussels.

Now, 18 months after the Commission launched legal action in the Luxembourg court, the case is being heard - just one hour of legal argument before the judges adjourn to consider a verdict which will not be delivered for months.

Piles of legal paperwork have already been scrutinised, and the public hearing is for lawyers on both sides to put their final submissions on the basis of EU law.

The Commission issued a world-wide ban on British beef exports in March 1996, as fears grew about the possible spread of BSE.

And it was not until the summer of 1999 that the Commission accepted new British health and safety checks on exports and lifted the ban.

Exports of beef from Britain officially resumed on August 1 1999 - but France countered the move by point out that its own Food Safety Agency was not so convinced that UK meat was safe.

The Commission insisted that all EU member states were a party to the decision to resume exports - but the French Food Safety Agency was newly-formed and its ruling that British beef still posed a threat was its first.

To have overturned it would have undermined confidence in the Agency, and Mr Jospin refused.

Now the European Court judges will be told by Commission lawyers that France has failed to fulfil its legal EU obligations by failing to comply with the Commission's decision.

Britain is formally backing the Commission case, determined to pin the French down over what has been described by Commission's officials as one of the most blatant breaches of EU law ever.

France does not deny that it is in breach of the law - but insists that in matters of food health and safety, no member state can be expected to ignore the findings of its own national experts.

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