France escapes huge fines over British beef ban

BRUSSELS, Nov 13 (AFP) - France on Wednesday escaped massive fines over its refusal to lift a ban on British beef, after the European Commission withdrew a case in the EU's highest court.

But Brussels said it would ask the European Court of Justice to make France pay its legal costs incurred in the long-running bid to get the French embargo overturned.

The commission had asked the European Union's top court to impose a fine of 158,250 euros (159,197 dollars) per day until Paris agreed to lift the ban.

It said in a statement it had "withdrawn its application to the European Court of Justice for the imposition of a daily fine on France for failure to implement" the court's judgment of December 2001 ordering France to lift the British beef ban.

"The Commission is thus satisfied that compliance with EU law has been achieved," the statement said, after France eventually relented and abandoned the embargo on October 25

But it added: "The commission has asked the Court to order that the costs of the case be borne by France as the French authorities have not complied with the judgement of the Court within the deadline set in the reasoned opinion."

France imposed a ban on British beef along with its EU partners in March 1996 to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a brain-wasting illness otherwise known as mad cow disease.

The rest of the 15-member EU lifted the ban in August 1999, after Britain introduced new safety measures, but Paris maintained its embargo saying it was unconvinced that British beef was safe.

The ban was eventually lifted, 10 months after the court ruling, after the French food safety agency AFSSA ruled that British meat no longer posed a health risk to consumers.

More than 100 people have died in Britain of BSE's human equivalent, new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), and five in France.