The Commissioner responsible for agriculture, Rene Steichen, has written to the German health minister, Horst Seehofer, confirming that the proposed six-month ban to stop the spread of 'mad cow disease' was 'totally illegal as it runs against EU free-trade rules and would leave us no option but to seek redress through the courts,' a spokesman said.
But the Commission was anxious to play down French demands that the EU impose more stringent restrictions on British beef exports. 'They are not suggesting unilateral action and want only to ensure that the safety precautions are tight enough, this we are doing,' the spokesman added.
The Prime Minister, John Major, and Gillian Shephard, agriculture minister, applauded the Commission's tough warning to the Germans that legal action would inevitably follow any ban.
Mrs Shephard said: 'I am very pleased that the European Commission is cracking down on the threat of illegal action by Germany. The Commissioner has formally confirmed the British view that Germany would be acting outside Community law . . . and goes on to warn Germany that if it pursues its present course the Commission will take proceedings against it in the European Court.'
But Mr Major said France's intervention in the row had been misinterpreted and that Paris had merely asked that the scientific evidence should be examined, as the Government was doing.
The French, who import pounds 190m- worth of British beef annually, expressed their fears in writing to the Commission 10 days ago, prior to the Government's ban on the sale of calf sweetbreads and intestines.
Although the demand strengthens Germany's hand, the French insistance that it has no intention of taking unilateral action and would act only in concert with the rest of the Union should add to diplomatic pressure for the dispute to be resolved informally without recourse to the European Court of Justice.
The German upper house must decide on Friday whether to proceed with the proposed ban. Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister, said last week he would prefer to see the dispute peacefully resolved and admitted the decision to press ahead with the ban was linked to the British veto of the Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, to replace Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission. The German health and agricultural ministeries are also thought to be at odds over the issue which is of huge consumer interest in this, a crucial election year in Germany.
In Brussels, committees of scientific experts and vets, will next week meet to examine whether tougher measures are needed to combat the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. If a majority decide action is required, measures could be implemented by the end of the month.
But the Commission remains convinced that the existing restrictions, which include a ban on the use of fertiliser meat and bonemeal, on the import of beef from herds that have been BSE- free for less than two years, or on the export of all cattle older than six months, are stringent enough.