France's refusal to lift British beef ban 'unjustified'

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The Independent Online

France was accused yesterday of a "flagrant, brazen and utterly unjustified" breach of European Union law for refusing to lift its ban on British beef almost two years after scientific experts ruled exports would be safe.

The case ­ being heard by a panel of 14 judges at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the final arbiter of EU law ­ is being pursued by the European Commission which, after consulting scientific experts, ordered the French government to lift its beef embargo on 1 August 1999.

If the judges rule in favour of the Commission the decision will vindicate the British Government's restraint in sticking to the law and refusing to retaliate by banning French produce.

France's insistence that British beef is unsafe caused a diplomatic rift between London and Paris in the autumn of 1999. Except for France, all European Union countries complied ­ including Germany, which initially wavered ­ and opened their markets to meat sold under the date-based export schemewhich lays down strict safety conditions.

Gerard Berscheid, speaking for the Commission, described the French action as "brazen and utterly unjustified", adding that its "flagrant and serious" breach of EU law was impeding normal trade flows.

But lawyers for the French government put a series of technical arguments that have impressed some legal experts, suggesting that Paris was given insufficient time to table its own scientific advice.

The final judgment is likely early next year and if it goes in favour of the Commission, France will be obliged to reopen its market­ which was once the biggest destination for British beef exports.

Should Paris remain in breach of the law the Commission could return to the court and seek massive fines for each day of delay.