The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has ruled that the French ban on direct imports of British beef, due to BSE, is illegal; however, the preliminary opinion delivered on 20 September 2001 did not judge the ban on indirect imports of British beef to be contrary to the law.
On 27 March 1996, the European Commission (EC) ordered a worldwide ban on British beef, after the discovery of BSE. The ban was lifted after three years, in August 1999, but France decided to maintain it, thereby breaking European law. France said its own national Food Safety Agency was not convinced about the safety of British beef.
The ban turned into major trade row, with some UK officials advocating blockades against French goods.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to lift the French ban on British beef, to no avail.
In January last year, the Commission started an action against France before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Since then, the Court has been analysing the arguments of the French food authorities to justify the ban.
On September 20, the Advocate General of the European Court issued a preliminary opinion saying that the French ban of direct imports of British beef was illegal. However, the Advocate General noted that in 1999 there was no full harmonisation of EU laws concerning traceability and labelling, leaving room for national measures to protect public health.
The ban on indirect imports of British beef is justified, as it is impossible for the French authorities to restore a product's traceability, if it has been broken while passing through the market of a third Member State before entering France. This is not the case with direct imports, which can be well traced from the entry of the product in France to the ultimate consumer, through the adoption of national measures.
French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany reacted to the Advocate General's opinion by declaring: "I have not changed my opinion. Today there is no reason for us to lift the ban."
Even if the Court's judges are in no way obliged to follow the Advocate General's opinion, they most often do. The final verdict is not expected until later this year or early next year.