European Union takes France to court over British beef

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The European Commission is to take France to court over its refusal to allow imports of British beef. Agriculture Commissioner David Byrne told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France that the Commission made the decision even though Britain and France 'are very close to a resolution' of the dispute that has been simmering since this summer.

The European Commission is to take France to court over its refusal to allow imports of British beef. Agriculture Commissioner David Byrne told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France that the Commission made the decision even though Britain and France 'are very close to a resolution' of the dispute that has been simmering since this summer.

Byrne said contacts are continuing on the issues that still separate the two sides. ÒI am hopeful that with a little good will on all sides, the ban can be lifted in the near future,Ó the commissioner added.

The EU imposed a worldwide ban on British beef in 1996 when bovine spongiform encephalapathy, commonly known as Òmad cow disease,Ó was linked to a similar fatal, brain-wasting disease in humans.

In August, the EU lifted the ban, saying British beef is now safe. The French then unilaterally imposed their own prohibition Oct. 1, claiming they had new evidence that British beef was unsafe. Of the 15 EU nations, only France and Germany have yet to reopen their borders to British beef. Germany claims the slow pace of its own parliamentary proceedings as its reason to end the import restrictions.

The Commission had given France until Tuesday to lift the ban or face being dragged before the European Court of Justice. The French did not comply.

'I am asking France therefore to submit its position in reply within two weeks,' Byrne said. The legal entire process could take as long as two years if France continues to refuse to comply. ÒI will be reviewing the situation in the next few days, in particular Germany will be asked for its timetable for lifting the ban,Ó he said.

The scientific evidence produced by France was examined by EU scientific advisers, who concluded unanimously last month there was no reason to change their previous ruling that British beef is safe.

French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany told the French Parliament Tuesday that he planned to ask Britain for 'some clarifications' before deciding on a lifting of the beef ban. These clarifications, he said, relate to tests they the British are going to start making immediately.

Glavany said recent talks aimed at finding a compromise to the six-week beef dispute had made considerable ÒadvancesÓ and that the British government has offered extra guarantees on both labeling imported meat and on tracing the meatÿs origins - two key French concerns.

Once the government here receives the information it has asked for, Glavany said he will ask Franceÿs food security agency - Agence francaise de securite sanitaire et des aliments - to look at a possible lifting of the ban.

The Conservatives welcomed the decision to take legal action but said it was 'astonishing' that the Commission had lost patience with France before the British Government.

'We welcome this recognition by the European Commission that France must be forced to lift its unlawful ban on British beef,' said shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo.

'Legal action must now be followed by compensation for British farmers who have suffered a loss of earnings during this illegal ban.'

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