Farmers win right to fight EU beef ban

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Farmers and meat traders yesterday won permission in the High Court to challenge the legality of the European Union worldwide export ban on British beef.

A judge ordered the case should be referred to the European Court of Justice - the only forum that can decide on the validity of the ban - after he has certified a question of law next Friday.

The National Farmers' Union formally won permission to seek a judicial review of Ministry of Agriculture and HM Customs and Excise refusals to issue health certificates for live animals destined for export and the decision to withdraw certificates required for the export of the meat of bovine animals slaughtered in the UK.

In effect, the ruling is a vehicle for Britain to seek a European Court of Justice ruling that the total ban on beef exports is a misuse of EU power.

However, EU officials said last night that while the Government's plans to slaughter 42 000 cattle could lead to an easing of the trade ban next week, it will not secure its scrapping.

The French agriculture minister, Philippe Vasseur, whose government was the first to ban British beef, suggested some easing of the boycott might be possible but appeared to rule out any early return to normal trade.

Produced at the eleventh hour under pressure from the European Commission, the latest plans, costed at pounds 84 million, would cut the incidence of BSE by between 15 and 30 per cent, the Government claims, but will not be implemented unless the EU ban is lifted.

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture are expected in Brussels for talks today, ahead of Monday's meeting of farm ministers in Luxembourg.