I would like to begin with a word of apology on behalf of my colleague David Byrne. Unfortunately, owing to the cancellation of the morning flight to Strasbourg he is not able to be here in person. I will therefore speak to you instead on the important issue of the Commission action in relation to the continued refusal of France to lift its ban on imports of British beef.
Commissioner Byrne will, however, be arriving in Strasbourg later this afternoon and will be in a position to take any questions when he speaks on the draft regulation on the labelling of beef products. He will also be happy to meet interested Members of Parliament individually or as a group to discuss the issue further.
In these unavoidable circumstances, I am only in a position to deliver Commissioner Byrne's script on his behalf.
The Commission yesterday, as you are already aware, adopted a decision to issue a formal avis motivé to the French authorities over their continued refusal to lift their national restrictions on imports of British beef. The French authorities have five working days to reply to this letter. In the absence of a decision to lift the ban, the case will be filed with the European Court of Justice.
The failure to resolve the dispute in an amicable manner is a huge disappointment to the Commission. I think it fair to add that it is a disappointment to all the parties concerned given the huge efforts which went into finding a solution without recourse to legal action.
The Commission has always made clear its preference to solve this dispute without legal intervention. This approach is in the interests of all parties. I would add that it especially in the interests of the party most affected, British beef producers. The reality is that legal action to lift the ban is likely to be a lengthy process. It is very much a second best solution to an amicable agreement.
The Commission's efforts focussed on establishing that the original decision to lift the ban on UK beef posed no threat to public health. This decision was based on a series of important safeguards which were firmly rooted in scientific advice. They also followed the orientations of the European Council in Florence in June 1996 on the procedures, timetable and safeguards required to lift the ban.
Unfortunately, the French authorities, on the advice of their national food safety authority (AFSSA), were still unprepared to lift their national restrictions. The Commission took the precaution of referring to its Scientific Steering Committee these concerns for an opinion on whether they called into question the decision to lift the ban and the terms of the date based export scheme in particular.
The unanimous opinion of the SSC that there is no need to review the decision to lift the ban on UK beef exports was hugely reassuring in this respect. Unfortunately, however, this reassurance did not prove sufficient to allow the French authorities to lift their ban.
Efforts have subsequently focused on providing additional reassurances and clarifications on the provisions of the DBES. These efforts led to the agreement between the UK, French and Commission on a memo of understanding on 23 November which provided the reassurances and clarifications required. I think it fair to say there was an expectation that this memo would prove to be the key to lifting the French embargo.
The opinion of AFSSA on the memo, however, again did not prove sufficient for the French authorities to lift the ban. On 9 December, they officially informed the Commission of this decision. This in turn has led the Commission to adopt an avis motivé yesterday.
There have been criticisms that the Commission's efforts to resolve the dispute in a diplomatic manner were a waste of time and effort. The argument, instead, is that the Commission should have immediately resorted to legal action. These criticisms are unfounded and are indeed dangerous. As I pointed out earlier, they are especially contrary to the interests of the most affected party British beef producers.
These criticisms also ignore the very determined action the Commission has taken to uphold its Treaty obligations to ensure compliance with Community law. In effect, the Commission has adopted a carrot and stick approach. The carrot was the very intensive effort to bring the parties together and to get them to agree a solution through negotiation.
The stick, on the other hand, was to take action when it was clear that this efforts were not proving sufficient. It is useful to bear in mind that the Commission's letter of mise en demeure, issued on 16 November, allowed a period of only two weeks for reply rather than the normal two months. Similarly, the avis motivé adopted yesterday also allows five days for reply rather than the normal two months.
In effect, therefore, there has been no slippage in the legal calendar in ensuring compliance with the decision to lift the ban on exports of UK beef. The intervening period has also served to provide much needed reassurances and guarantees that the original decision to lift the ban was soundly based. In particular, it has established that the scientific basis for lifting the ban was sound.
I am sure that if we are ever to find an amicable solution to this dispute, which I hope can still be found, it will have been due to the efforts which took place over the past several weeks.
Thank you for your attention. Once more, let me apologise on Commissioner Byrne's behalf that he is not here in person but he will be available to take questions later either in the context of the labelling regulation or on request.