Judges clear way for exporters to sue over beef blockades

A landmark European Court judgment yesterday could make it easier for Irish exporters hit by blockades to win compensation from Britain. The European Court ruled yesterday that national authorities must actively safeguard the free movement of goods within the European Union's single market. British hauliers hit by the recent French truckers' dispute could also benefit from the ruling.

Upholding a Spanish complaint, the court said the French had failed to protect the single market after French farmers, allegedly grouped in small commando-style units, repeatedly intercepted and destroyed consignments of Spanish strawberries. The ruling leaves it to Spanish victims to seek compensation in the national courts, but leaves little room for doubt that in this case the French are to blame for failing to do enough. "The French Republic has failed to observe the fundamental principle of the free movement of goods and the duty of co-operation which the EC Treaty imposes on the member states," it said.

Britain, which ironically backed the Spanish case, yesterday defended its record in keeping trade flowing despite accusations to the contrary from Irish exporters and hauliers. Lord Simon, the trade and competitiveness minister, said police chiefs were being told to take "all reasonable steps to allow drivers to continue their journeys in peace."

The ruling came as the president of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, Sandy Mole, stepped down after enduring a barrage of criticism in recent weeks.

Mr Mole was said to have failed to recognise the feelings of farmers throughout the latest crises in the beef industry.

In his resignation letter he said: "My reasons for the decision are that my presidency has become untenable and unsustainable over the past few weeks."

British butchers yesterday appealed to the Government to postpone the ban on beef on the bone until after Christmas. In a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Jack Cunningham, they warned that if the ban comes into force next week it will devastate sales in the vital festive season.

More than 600 farmers converged on Liverpool's Seaforth Docks last night to try and turn back lorry loads of imported meat. They also blockaded the entrance to Safeway's distribution centre at the Ardwick Industrial Estate in Warrington.

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