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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 03:22 GMT

World: Europe

Analysis: France faces legal challenge

British MPs and MEPs demonstrate in Paris against the ban

By Europe Correspondent Justin Webb

France faces legal action in the European Court of Justice for an illegal trade embargo.

But do not expect quick action - that has to be the warning for British farmers looking to the European Court of Justice to blaze a trail for British beef.

Like all legal outfits it tends to run to its own timetable, not that of the politicians or the demonstrators.

But having said that, the court is a serious body and has real teeth.

Notification in writing

The first thing it has to do is warn France in writing that the action is going to be taken.

If the French do nothing, then the court is notified.

As soon as it is received, the message is entered in the court register.

The registrar publishes a notice of the action and of the applicant's claims in the Official Journal of the European Communities.

Next a judge-rapporteur and an advocate-general are appointed - their job is to follow the case through and make sure timings do not slip.

Panel of judges

The notice of action would at this stage be served on the French, who have a month to lodge a defence.

The commission can then submit a reply, and the defendant a rejoinder; each of these letters can take a month to be sent.

Only then does the court set a date for a public hearing. At that hearing the evidence is heard and questions asked by the panel of three judges.

A draft judgement is drawn up with all the judges on the panel able to suggest changes. When a final text is agreed, judgement is given in open court.

Uncharted waters

What happens next? Initially nothing. Assuming the French still remained defiant and the judgement was against them, the commission has to issue yet another deadline for compliance with its original request.

Only after that deadline has passed will the court be asked to sit again and decide on a suitable punishment.

But this is where we are into uncharted waters.

In theory, the French could find themselves subject to a fine - perhaps running into thousands of pounds per day.

What would happen if they refused to pay? The answer is that nobody knows. But perhaps the details of the punishment are irrelevant.

EU presidency

A fact that has been little reported so far but is of potentially far greater importance for the future of this beef row is that the French - in eight months time - assume the rotating presidency of the European Union.

The French set great store by their position at the heart of the union.

They are proud to have helped found it, and they are greatly upset when their influence within it comes under threat.

But that is exactly what would happen if, during their presidency, they were fighting a battle with the commission over beef.

They would be marginalised politically and administratively and they would hate it.

That is why legal action, though it looks like a lumbering beast, might still force the French to think again.

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