Santer faces fresh row over French testing

Another row over French nuclear tests is expected to break out in Strasbourg today when Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, will tell the European Parliament whether Brussels is to take action to halt the tests.

Last night the Commission met in Brussels to review whether France had breached its obligations under the EU's Euratom Treaty, which gives the Commission power to oversee the safety of nuclear testing by a member state. As the meeting began the signs were that the Commission would not be seeking a confrontation with France, which is understood to have handed over new information on safety issues for inspection by the Commission.

However, unless Mr Santer presents a convincing case to the parliament today for shelving action, the Commission will face accusations of failing to carry out its duty as a health and safety watchdog. Commissioners from several member states, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria, support the principle of launching proceedings against France under the Euratom Treaty. However, the Commission does not wish to take action which could lead to the European Court without a water-tight case. Ritt Bjerregaard, the Danish environment commissioner, has been blamed by some for mishandling the issue, and presenting a badly argued case against France.

As the Commission met last night, Greenpeace demonstrators protested outside the Brussels building, asking whether the commissioners were "lapdogs" or "watchdogs" when it came to the issue of French nuclear tests.

Pauline Green, leader of the Socialist MEPs, warned the Commission when the issue was last debated in Strasbourg 10 days ago that the EU's credbility was on the line. The Parliament has discussed whether to propose a vote of no confidence in the Commission. Some MEPs suspect that the Commission is appeasing Paris to avoid souring debate on other important European issues.

The Euratom Treaty is the only legal instrument which can be used to question the legality of the French nuclear tests. It gives the Commission the right to oversee health and safety requirements before a "particularly dangerous experiment" is carried out.

In the case of the recent French tests, however, the Commission was provided with little of the crucial information needed to assess the safety of the tests. In particular, France failed to provide information on geological damage. Data on the radiation was kept back, even after the first two tests. Furthermore, a Commission inspection team which went to the South Pacific was denied access to the atolls where the tests happened.

Addressing the Parliament 10 days ago, Mr Santer said he would write to the French government requiring all the relevant information to be handed over. The key question facing the Commissioners last night was whether France had now co-operated fully, and whether any concerns were raised by the data it had provided.