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011221 Court Says French Ban on British Beef Is Illegal

December 13, 2001

Luxembourg - France is breaking European Union law by banning British beef over fears of mad cow disease, the EU's highest court said.

The final ruling from the European Court of Justice in the two-year- old case puts new pressure on Paris to drop its unilateral ban or face the prospect of hefty fines.

“The court declares unlawful France's refusal to lift the ban on correctly marked or labeled imports of British beef and veal from 30 December 1999,” the court said in a statement.

Although the overall ruling went against France, the court accepted French arguments that the initial EU rules governing the resumption of British beef exports were so vague that it was difficult for member states to apply them.

As a result of what it called a “lack of clarity” in the original rules, the panel of 13 judges ordered both France and the European Commission to shoulder the costs of the case.

The ruling by the court is final and cannot be appealed, meaning that French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government will now have to choose whether to end the ban or face the prospect of more legal action that could result in huge fines.

The European Union banned British beef exports in 1996 after Britain linked mad cow disease, widespread in the country, to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which has so far killed about 100 people, mostly in the UK but also in France.

After Britain acted to control mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the Commission rescinded the ban in 1999.

France refused to comply, citing health concerns, and the Commission sued the country to force it to respect EU law.


French farm minister Jean Glavany was circumspect over the court's verdict, saying he first wanted to study it with Jospin. Sources close to Glavany said a full cabinet debate on the ruling was needed before a decision could be taken.

Jospin was due on Thursday to chair a regular ministerial meeting at his Paris office.

The leader of France's main farm union, the FNSEA, said he had no regrets about the embargo and warned the government to be “vigilant” if it decides to respect the court's ruling.

But his counterpart at Britain's main farm union, the NFU, kept up the pressure on Paris, saying France had damaged “the very credibility of the European Union” and should face stiff fines as a result.

“It is vital that the Commission takes a tough line over this flagrant and lengthy breach of EC law,” National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Ben Gill said in a statement.


EU health commissioner David Byrne called the court's ruling a vindication and said he expected France to implement it, while British agriculture minister Elliot Morley said both the court and private British firms could now seek penalties against France.

“We welcome the ruling. We did expect it. We always argued the French position was illegal,” he told parliament.

“There may well be UK companies and firms who may wish to pursue compensation (and) we will give support and advice and any assistance if they want to do that.”

If Paris were to defy the court -- a distinct possibility given French farmers' political clout and the approaching presidential elections -- the Commission could ask the judges to fine France for breaking the law.

However, a Commission spokeswoman signaled such talk was premature.

“The court has ruled. We expect France to comply. Let's take it from there,” the spokeswoman told reporters in Brussels.

The power to impose fines on a member state is considered the ultimate sanction for the Commission. It can only be invoked after the European Court of Justice has already ruled once against the country after a lengthy hearing.

Only one of the EU's 15 member states has been fined in this way to date. Greece was subjected to a daily penalty of $17,950 last year after the court ruled that it was ignoring EU environmental laws.

The Commission stopped fining Greece last July but not before it had collected 5.4 million euros from Athens.


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