Europe's most powerful court ordered France yesterday to remove its ban on British beef in a judgment that declared illegal the two-year French embargo on imports.
The ruling means Paris must now open its market and drop its insistence that British beef remains unsafe because of the country's mad cow epidemic of the 1990s. However, under the European Court of Justice's lengthy procedures, Paris can stall for months, if not years, before risking massive fines if it does not comply.
Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, welcomed the verdict and called on the French to lift their import ban at once. The Government said it would assist compensation claims against the French, while the National Farmers' Union said it was planning legal action to recover farmers' losses.
Elliot Morley, the Agriculture minister, told MPs: "There may well be UK companies and firms who wish to pursue compensation. That is a matter for them, but what I can say is we will give support and advice and any assistance."
Ian Gardiner, the deputy director general of the National Farmers' Union, said it intended to launch a "class action on behalf of British farmers" to seek compensation from the French government.
He said: "We do believe this offer of advice from the British government is very right and proper and extremely helpful. It is not so much that the ban has done damage to British farmers and meat exports; the question is trying to quantify what that damage is."
The French government evidently plans to play for time, even though it knows that it will eventually have to comply with the European court judgment. Jean Glavany, the Agriculture Minister, said he would not consider his next step until he met leaders of the French beef industry on 7 January.
The judgment could not have fallen at a worse time for Paris. French beef farmers are still suffering from the joint effects of the BSE and foot-and-mouth scares (both imported from Britain). On top of this, the transition next month to the euro and the presidential election in April make this a difficult time for Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister and presidential contender, to be seen to bow to a European ruling.
French farmers took a cautious line, not wishing to be seen to reject the rules of a common European market from which they gain so much.
But the judgment is not of any immediate help to British farmers because the UK is not exporting any beef. When the foot-and-mouth outbreak halted meat exports, the two British plants licensed to process meat under strict conditions for export opted instead to switch to production for the domestic market.
Nevertheless the judgment is an important victory for the British Government and for the European Commission, which took the case against France to the European Court of Justice.
France did have some comfort from part of yesterday's ruling, which criticised European Commission rules for lack of clarity and concluded that labelling in other EU countries was not strict enough in 1999 to ensure that all British beef was clearly marked.
There is no appeal and the ruling marks the beginning of the end of one of the most acrimonious episodes in recent Anglo-French relations.Reuse content