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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 20:09 GMT
France escapes fines over UK beef
Carcasses at Rungis wholesale meat market, Paris
France is accused of protecting its own farmers
France has escaped the threat of huge fines from the European Commission over its illegal ban on British beef imports.

The Commission withdrew the proposed $161,400 (100,000) a-day penalties against France because they cannot be imposed retrospectively.


The UK regrets the decision by the European Commission not to pursue the case seeking penalties against France

UK Government statement

France lifted its restrictions on imports of British beef last month - more than a year after being ordered to do so by the European Court of Justice.

The Commission had applied to the court for the hefty daily fines until France agreed to accept British beef, but the case was still pending when France lifted its ban.

The rest of the EU lifted the beef ban in August 1999, after Britain introduced new safeguards to prevent the spread of BSE, otherwise known as mad cow disease.

Legal costs

A European Commission spokeswoman said the fines "would only be applicable from the day the court agreed, and as France has now changed its policy, no fines could be imposed".

Six-year beef row
1996: European Commission imposes a worldwide ban on British beef exports
1999: Commission declares worldwide markets open again
2000: Germany agrees to take UK imports
2001: European Court of Justice rules French refusal to take British beef illegal
June 2002: Commission asks European Court to impose daily fines of 100,000 against France
Sept 2002: French food agency advises lifting the ban and the French government complies

The Commission only asked the court to order France to meet the legal costs of the case.

The UK Government said it "regrets the decision by the European Commission not to pursue the case seeking penalties against France".

"The UK has supported the Commission throughout, and believes that pressing this case would have sent a firm message to member states that no one country can avoid its obligations and responsibilities," the statement said.

The Commission said it was already examining ways to change the EU Treaty to give it more powers to penalise governments that disobey EU rulings.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur in Brussels says the British farmers hit by the French ban are unlikely to give up the fight for compensation.

Losses to UK farmers are put at about $480m (300m) a year during the French ban, and the National Farmers' Union said it was in touch with French lawyers to see whether "in principle" compensation could be payable.

Compensation demand

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac
The beef ban cast a shadow over UK-French ties

A Conservative member of the European Parliament, Neil Parish, said the Commission had "now given a clear signal that it is acceptable to flout EU law for over three years and get away scot-free".

"It is now essential that the British Government takes up the cudgel independently so that our farmers can receive both the compensation and the justice that they deserve," he said.

It is not clear how the level of compensation would be determined without evidence of the exact impact of the French delay, as the BSE crisis reduced British beef exports to foreign markets generally.

Mad cow disease has been linked to a deadly human variant, Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (vCJD), which has so far killed more than 100 people, mostly in Britain but also some in France.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"There really wasn't anything the French government could have done"

CJD

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25 Sep 02 | Business
25 Sep 02 | UK
17 Jul 02 | Europe
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