Risking a head-on clash with Paris, the European Commission last night stepped up pressure on Jacques Chirac, the French President, to halt nuclear tests in the South Pacific.
Amid threats from the European Parliament to sack the Commission if it failed to act, Jacques Santer told the parliament in Strasbourg that the Commission - of which he is President - had voted yesterday to invoke its powers under the Euratom Treaty by sending a letter to the French government demanding more information on health and safety measures.
Under article 34 of the Euratom Treaty, the Commission has the responsibility to protect the population of member states in case of "a particularly dangerous experiment''. It is understood that France has been given five days to respond. Mr Santer confirmed that the Commission had been denied crucial data from the French government on the affects of the tests on geological strata, and that a Commission team had been denied access to key sites.
In theory the Commission's decision yesterday could lead to an action before the European Court of Justice in which France could be held liable for failing to protect people in the area of the tests. But there were fears that Mr Santer's announcement might simply be a new ploy to buy time. To stave off an immediate confrontation with Mr Chirac, Mr Santer said the Commission would not take a final view on legal action until all the information from Paris had been assessed at a further meeting in Strasbourg on 23 October, when, said Mr Santer, "the Commission will adopt an opinion in line with the article''. The Commission was left in no doubt last night as to the likely response from the European Parliament, should it reduce its pressure on the French government, or dodge a decision to take France to court if all the information is not provided.
Addressing the parliament yesterday, Pauline Green, leader of the Socialists, denounced the French tests as "unacceptable, unwarranted and colonialist''. She demanded that Mr Santer keep his vow, made when he assumed office in January, to maintain the principle of openness. "The credibility of the Commission is on the line," said Mrs Green, who also challenged Mr Santer to come clean about any private agreement he may have with Mr Chirac not to invoke the Euratom Treaty. Last week it was revealed that the French government believed it had assurances from Mr Santer that the Commission would not take it to court over the tests.
As he addressed the parliament Mr Santer was clearly aware of the high political stakes involved. Outside the building Greenpeace demonstrators massed, rolling out a dummy bomb. Throughout the week the two French members of the 20-member Commission have been fiercely lobbying in Brussels to prevent the sending of yesterday's letter. However, the drive to pressure the French has won the support of commissioners from Germany, Austria, Italy and Scandinavia. Neil Kinnock, the British Transport Commissioner, also supported the action.
There was no immediate response from Paris, but the next few days are certain to bring a strong rearguard action from the French, who still question whether the Euratom Treaty applies to the tests.