Britain on collision course with EU

THE TIMES: FOREIGN NEWS ... July 13 1996 THE European Court ruling yesterday was the latest in a series against Britain over the past year.

The next big collision between Britain and the court will come in September when the judges rule on the Commission's attempt to ensure that Britain abides by a European Union directive enforcing a maximum 48-hour week and other restrictions to working time. John Major has promised to trim the court's powers and the EU's ability to impose such social measures at the inter-governmental conference, which is revising the Maastricht treaty.

Meanwhile, the Commission said yesterday that Germany could face action in the European Court if it persisted with a ban on British beef products which are to be allowed back on the world market under EU decisions last month. The German Government decided this week to extend indefinitely the blanket ban imposed by Bonn in March. This appeared to breach the EU decision to authorise the export of bull semen, gelatine and tallow.

Commission spokesmen said German conduct was being examined and action would follow if it was seen to be violating the EU law.

Bull semen is already back on the world market, but Britain must still meet certain conditions before gelatine and tallow may be exported.

European Court rejects move to suspend beef ban

THE TIMES: FOREIGN NEWS ... July 13 1996

SIR NICHOLAS LYELL, the Attorney-General, yesterday insisted that the fight to end the world ban on British beef exports would go on despite the European Court of Justice dismissing every aspect of the attempt to have the restrictions lifted.

Sir Nicholas said: "We will continue with our main court action, arguing strenuously that the ban is unlawful and should be lifted in its entirety."

The relief was palpable in the Commission and around Continental capitals after the Luxembourg judges endorsed the legality of the global ban imposed by the European Union in March. A decision even partly in Britain's favour would have ignited a new crisis, since most of the 14 other member states were certain to maintain their own embargoes if the European order had been curbed or struck down.

"This is what we wanted," said Franz Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner. Some Commission officials had been nervous over the legal basis of the EU's authority to impose a ban on exports to non-EU countries.

John Major expressed surprise and disappointment at the court's decision. "We need to continue to restore confidence in British beef. I think there is no reason not to have confidence in British beef," he said.

Tory Euro-sceptic MPs were last night urging the Government to restore the policy of non-cooperation with the EU to counter the "politically motivated" decision.

James Cran, MP for Beverley, called for Britain to use its veto at the next inter-governmental conference. He said: "People have got to wake up to the fact that the ratchet is working and that Britain is being dragged into a European union. One day we will wake up and find we cannot turn back. It is very depressing news."

Iain Duncan-Smith, MP for Chingford, said: "We should ignore the ruling and restart exports to the rest of the world. We have proof that there are no health grounds for this ban. This is more about confidence in the market. It is vindictive."

Britain last month applied for an interim order halting the ban while the court reviewed the substance of its double-pronged claim that the EU action was illegal and inflicted disproportionate suffering on the British beef industry.

The final decision will not come until next year, well after the Government hopes to have freed more beef products for export under the procedure agreed at the Florence EU summit last month.

The court said the EU had been justified in intervening over British beef because of scientific findings linking BSE to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human equivalent. The judges said they acknowledged the economic and social difficulties caused by the ban, but rejected Britain's case, citing "the paramount importance to be accorded to the protection of health".

There were still too many uncertainties over the link between BSE and CJD, the judges said. They noted that death invariably followed the diagnosis of CJD within months.

"Since the most likely explanation of this fatal disease is exposure to BSE there can be no hesitation. The ban has a legitimate aim ­ the protection of health ­ and, as a containment measure prior to eradication of [BSE], it was essential to the achievement of that aim," it said.

The court, which was composed of 12 judges sitting under its Spanish president, acknowledged that some of Britain's arguments merited closer analysis, but there would be too great a risk in suspending the ban while these were considered.

The court said the statement in March from SEAC, the Government's advisory Committee on BSE, on new evidence suggesting a link between BSE and CJD had changed the situation over the need to protect consumers. "There is nothing to suggest that the Commission acted, as the United Kingdom claims, solely for economic reasons in order to stabilise the beef and veal market," the court concluded.

The Luxembourg judges will rule today on a separate application, by the National Farmers Union, for a suspension of the ban. Yesterday's ruling makes rejection a foregone conclusion.

The NFU said yesterday it was disappointed by the court's decision but vowed to press ahead with its own case.

"We believe the European Commission misused its powers contrary to the Treaty of Rome and acted disproportionately in imposing the ban", the NFU said.

Colin Maclean, director-general of the Meat and Livestock Commission, the government quango charged with the promotion of British meat, said: "The court's decision is particularly discouraging as we already have customers in third countries willing to resume trade in British beef as soon as the ban is lifted."