Secret deal over N-test let Paris avoid EU laws

SARAH HELM

Brussels

France carried out its second nuclear test this week after securing agreement from Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, that the Commission would not use European law to stop the tests, according to a secret diplomatic memorandum.

The memorandum, written by senior EU diplomats, and seen by the Independent, describes an "understanding" reached last month between Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Mr Santer which led the French to believe the test could go ahead without risking action in the European Court of Justice.

Nuclear protesters believe that the deal might have been struck because Mr Santer wished to defuse any wider political split within the EU over the nuclear tests.

The testing has already soured relations between France and many of its EU partners, adding to divisions over issues of EU reform.

Nicholas Van der Pas, spokesman for Mr Santer, strongly denied reports of any secret deal, dismissing the suggestion as "rubbish". However, fuelling speculation that France was given a green light from Brussels, the European Commission yesterday once again failed to take any action against France, despite the second test carried out on Monday, and despite the refusal of France to give Commission experts access to sites.

News of the memorandum is certain to cause uproar in the European Parliament. Pauline Green, leader of the Socialist group, said last night that if the deal cited in the memorandum was substantiated, it would mean that "a subjugation of the democratic procedures of the EU" had taken place.

On two occasions Mr Santer told the European Parliament that the possibility of action against France was being considered. The Parliament has demanded that the Commission take out an injunction in the European Court to halt all nuclear tests until all possible information on the health and environmental impact has been examined.

It argues that under Article 34 of the Euratom Treaty, the Commission has a duty to assess health and safety implications of nuclear tests before they go ahead.

However, the memorandum says that any such action has already been ruled out. According to the document, France reported last month that, following conversations between Paris and the Commission, it had been assured that the question of application of Article 34 would "not be pursued".

From the start of the nuclear- tests row the Commission has appeared impotent. There is little doubt that it does have the power under the Euratom Treaty to prevent such tests taking place if it is not completely satisfied that adequate health and safety measures have been taken.

In order to have this evidence, however, the Commission must be alerted in good time to the fact that the tests are about to take place, and must have access to all the necessary information.

Ritt Bjerregaard, the commissioner responsible for the environment, has attempted to spur the Commission into action, and dispatched a team of nuclear experts to review the safety implications of the tests.

However, yesterday officials in Brussels announced that France had refused the Commission team access to a number of key sites.

At a meeting of the Commission yesterday Mrs Bjerregaard called for a decision to begin legal action against France but her request was rejected. Instead, the Commissioners decided to "insist" once again that France provide the necessary data, deferring further action for another week.

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