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Wednesday, 15 December 1999 - Strasbourg OJ edition

13. Bovine animals and beef: identification, registration and labelling

  President. – The next item is the debate on the report (A5-0101/1999) by Mr Papayannakis, on behalf of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy, on the proposal for a European Parliament and Council regulation amending Council Regulation (EC) No 820/97 establishing a system for the identification and registration of bovine animals and regarding the labelling of beef and beef products [COM(1999) 487 – C5-0241/1999 – 1999/0205(COD)].

Mr Goodwill has the floor for a procedural motion.


  Goodwill (PPE-DE). – Mr President, on a point of order, although we are not joined by the Council representative tonight, could I ask whether the Commission or a representative of Parliament's secretariat are aware of press agency reports I have seen which state that the decision to extend the voluntary scheme for 12 months was actually made in the Council yesterday, circumventing the codecision procedure and making this debate and the vote tomorrow irrelevant?


  President. – Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf has the floor for a procedural motion.


  Graefe zu Baringdorf (Greens/ALE).(DE) Mr President. I wish to speak on the same point. I do not take the view that the debate here and hence the vote tomorrow are irrelevant. Quite the contrary. What I would like clarified for the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, and because the Council is not here I would be happy to hear it from Commissioner Byrne before the debate, is this: how are we to interpret these announcements and the Council conclusions before us. Obviously the Council has decided that, if we react to the regulation presented by the Commission with proposed amendments, it may not agree to the simplified procedure, i.e. to accept this postponement under the codecision procedure. It would then approve another proposal from the Commission, drafted in accordance with the old Regulation 820, article 19 of which establishes implementing provisions which allow a postponement of one year. The Council has apparently decided, should the Commission make this formal proposal, to agree to it.

So, obviously what we have here is a twin-track approach by the Commission and we are naturally curious to know, Commissioner Byrne, now that we are in the middle of a codecision procedure, if the Commission is using a twin-track approach to circumvent this codecision by announcing a different approach to the Council.

I would be most obliged if you could tell me if you condone this approach by the Council, whereby a simplified codecision procedure can only be approved if Parliament does not exercise its right to amend the text presented by the Commission to the Council, in which case we must conclude that, if we exercise that right we are, to all intents and purposes, out of the codecision procedure! We would like this point cleared up by the Commissioner before the debate. I am sorry, Commissioner, but I must put this question to you; the Council is not here and we would like this cleared up before the debate and before tomorrow’s vote. I repeat that I consider that this debate and tomorrow’s vote, i.e. the postponement, are urgently needed. I disagree in this respect with the previous speaker, but I share his view that this needs to be clarified.


  Byrne, Commission. – Mr President, I am not quite sure what I am being asked to do at this stage. If it is agreeable to you and Members of Parliament I could address you on the issues I have come to address you on or alternatively answer the question that has been asked, in so far as I can, by the two previous speakers in relation to the issues raised in the Council yesterday. As Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf very rightly points out, I am not here to answer on behalf of the Council, but in so far as I can assist Parliament I would be very happy to do so.

I have with me a copy of the conclusions which were suggested by the Presidency yesterday. Before I read that document I should point out that what I am about to read amounts to a political orientation taken by the Council yesterday. The Council recognised that this issue was being discussed today in Parliament. Therefore, they deferred any decision on this issue until after Parliament had discussed the issue. The matter will then go back to the one of the Councils before the end of the year, taking into account the decision of Parliament today. However, if it is of assistance to Parliament I would be very happy to read this document which amounts to a political orientation rather than a conclusion or a decision of the Council yesterday.

The Council, after having examined the Commission proposal aiming at postponing for one year (from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2000) the introduction of a compulsory beef labelling system and maintaining during this period the voluntary labelling scheme provided for in Regulation (EC) No 820/97, has adopted the following conclusions:

(1) The Council agrees on the following common orientation: the Commission proposal is acceptable without any other amendment than the addition of Article 37 to Article 152, paragraph 4(b) as a legal basis;

(2) Should the opinion which will be delivered by the European Parliament within the first reading of the codecision procedure correspond to the above common orientation, the Council shall accept this outcome and therefore adopt the proposed act thus amended;

(3) If this were not the case, the legislative act could not be adopted before 31 December 1999;

(4) The Council notes that in this hypothesis the Commission intends to submit a proposal having the same objective, but based on Article 19, paragraph 1 of Regulation (EC) No 820/97;

(5) The Council has considered a working document prepared by the Commission services in this perspective – 14015/99 – and noted a large majority in favour of the substance of the text;

(6) Should the Commission submit a formal proposal for a Council regulation corresponding to the text of the working document which received the support of the Council, the Council shall adopt such proposed regulation before 31 December 1999;

(7) The Council will do its utmost in order to have a decision on a labelling provision as soon as possible in consultation with the European Parliament.

That is the orientation of the Agriculture Council yesterday. They have refrained from making a decision in deference to Parliament's discussions here today and the decision is open to Parliament to take tomorrow.


  Papayannakis (GUE/NGL), rapporteur. – (EL) Mr President, having heard the text read by Mr Byrne, of which I have a copy here before me, there is indeed little point in this debate. Mr Byrne, it is not true that the Council has not taken any decisions. The Council has decided on a year’s postponement. It says so. The Council has decided that it knows that the Commission – in other words you – will present another solution which we know nothing about. You know what it is, they know that you will present it to them, that it will be a good solution, that it will approve it by 31 December and that it will approve it without codecision. That too is a Council decision. Consequently, you are trying to fool us here.

Despite all this, I still have to present my report to you. We approved Regulation No 820 in 1997. It makes provision for the identification and registration of bovine animals – this was during the “mad cow” crisis – and it was decided on and entered into force on 1 July 1997. It makes provision for labelling of beef and beef products: voluntary labelling until 31 December 1999 and compulsory labelling as of 1 January 2000. I should point out, just so that we are clear on this, that the voluntary scheme in each country or in certain countries will obviously not become the compulsory system throughout the Union. The transition from the voluntary to the compulsory scheme is effected by approving implementary regulations which should have been drafted by the Commission and which should be approved by 1 January 2000. As yet, nothing has been approved. Consequently, as of 1 January 2000 we must expect to have a sort of legal vacuum and chaos and confusion on the market. Why? Because the Member States have been late sending in the reports which they were required to send to the Commission and the Commission has failed to do its work. Then the Commission comes along on 15 November and tells us, “We are unable to complete, please can we postpone for a year”, adding that this will be on a new legal basis, Article 152 of the Treaty, which is quite right following the Amsterdam Treaty.

This development puts Parliament in a very difficult position, Mr President. Either we accept exactly what the Commission tells us, i.e. we postpone for a year and then codecide on the implementary regulations, or we make amendments, in which case, the Council tells us, these amendments cannot be accepted. It has already told us. If they cannot be accepted, then again we have a problem. What did we do in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy? We of course voiced the right criticism which, I believe, should be particularly forceful of the Commission and the Council. We do not accept a year’s postponement. We say it should be reduced to no more than eight months and, of course, with the amendments which the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy has approved, we have, Mr President, to all intents and purposes, agreed with the proposals to sideline codecision, in order to save time and ensure that a compulsory agreement is reached quickly. We have seen what the Council has decided, it has discounted all of this as impossible. It has already said that it is going to postpone for a year and that it is waiting for the famous proposals which the Commission is hiding up its sleeve and which will solve the problem of implementation.

I think, Mr President, that things have come to a pretty pass. I do not think that any of the procedures being proposed guarantee that we will proceed more quickly towards compulsory labelling. I imagine that the Council will soon meet in extraordinary session, probably before Christmas, and will do something to ensure that there is no vacuum, chaos and confusion. However, codecision has been sidelined and perhaps we are partly to blame. I think, Mr President, that it is only logical after all this to envisage the possibility of going to Court, because these are clear infringements of the legislation.

I personally think that there is no guarantee that we will proceed more quickly. However, I recommend the solution proposed by the Committee on Environment and I hope that we will proceed more quickly, albeit using dubious methods, towards compulsory labelling. We have seen today how important it is in resolving differences between Member States and, above all, and much more importantly, and this is what interests us, how important it is to consumer protection. If we see that even with this dubious method there is no progress towards an urgent solution, I think it is unavoidable that we shall end up taking recourse to Court, if, of course, there is a majority in the House which has the political courage and resolution to do so.


  Kindermann (PSE), draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.(DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, we discussed the question of beef labelling here in plenary as early as February 1997. At the time we, as the European Parliament, voted in favour of the immediate introduction of the compulsory labelling system. However, the Council decided on an initially optional labelling system and postponed the compulsory system until January 2000. We are now being asked to agree to a further postponement of one year, as there has been a delay in the implementation of the applicable regulation 820/97. The Member States and the Commission alone are to blame for these delays.

The Commission justifies the delay by saying that the progress reports from the Member States, which form the basis for the general rules governing a compulsory system, were received too late. In our opinion, the Commission and the Member States did not make a conscientious effort to ensure that the compulsory beef labelling system would enter into force as planned. The Commission must therefore be prepared to answer the question of why it did not take the Member States to task earlier. After all, the Member States were obliged to ensure that the conditions needed for complete proof of origin for cattle were in place and that their electronic data bases were up and running by 31 December this year.

The Commission’s contention, that the presentation of its proposal was delayed because the outcome of the case pending against the Council before the European Court of Justice on the legal basis for Regulation 820/97 has not yet been decided, is also unacceptable. Even if the judgement had been made, it would still have been extremely difficult to complete a codecision procedure on this matter.

We cannot sanction a further postponement of one year without reservation; otherwise we may well be forced again this time next year to agree to a further postponement because some Member States have again failed to do their homework. We will give the Member States a further eight months to catch up but the compulsory system must be definitively introduced in all Member States and for everyone marketing beef on 1 September 2000. The Commission has time until then to submit implementing provisions for the compulsory system. At the same time, the European Parliament and the Council will decide on a new version of Regulation 820/97 under a codecision procedure. This approach will enable the compulsory system to be introduced earlier than envisaged by the Commission in its proposal and will give all those concerned sufficient time to find a lasting and satisfactory solution.

In conclusion, I should like once again to thank my colleagues in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy for taking account of the amendment proposed by the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development; I think it is important, here and now, for the European Parliament to speak with one voice and to send out a clear signal on this matter of fundamental importance to consumers. I would also like, once again, to thank all those who have worked on this and the services for their fast work and self-sacrifice.


  Goodwill (PPE-DE). – The last decades of the twentieth century have been punctuated by a series of food scares. In many cases genuine concerns are blown out of proportion as the media indulge in a feeding frenzy, seldom letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Maybe we do not have enough journalists with a scientific background able to quantify issues like risk or possibly, as I suspect, a sensational front page headline which will sell a newspaper is more important than giving consumers information on which to judge their buying decisions.

Product labelling is one important way in which this misinformation can be countered. It is, of course, possible to go too far and give technical data that confuses rather than informs. When the details of this and other directives are considered I hope we can have at the back of our minds the mother trailing two or three irritable children around the supermarket. She does not have time to read a detailed data sheet. She needs to see at a glance the information on the origin, production method and other details in a simple, unambiguous way.

At present food labelling is at best vague, at worst deliberately misleading. For example, one could be forgiven for thinking that bacon labelled "packed in the UK" was produced in Britain under our most stringent welfare standards; not so. And shepherd's pie labelled "product of the UK" may contain beef from Botswana, Zimbabwe or anywhere else in the world. This is not good enough. Labelling rules should address these problems.

I now come to the intolerable situation we find ourselves in today regarding the extension of the voluntary beef labelling scheme. What would be the attitude of the EU if it were a company, not a country, that chose to ignore legislation which other similar businesses were complying with? The full force of the law would be unleashed of course. We have the situation that 12 of the 15 Member States have not introduced a voluntary system of beef labelling and are therefore not in a position to move to a compulsory scheme in January. The Commission blames the Member States for not providing information about the lack of action in time for the proper democratic procedures to ensue. They should, however, have been aware of how the situation was developing and I am sure a few telephone calls would soon have put the Commission in the picture. Today, despite the fact that both the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on the Environment of this Parliament were asked to consider this extension, the Council has decided to ignore this House and change the legal basis for this decision, despite the fact that the amendments proposed were both practical and reasonable and could have been adopted under codecision. This is an insult to the Members of the European Parliament.

It is particularly important, finally, that consumers know where the beef they are consuming comes from. In the wake of the BSE crisis we must make it simple for people to identify the safest beef available, which is, of course, British.

Could I also urge Commissioner Byrne to introduce a compensation scheme for British beef farmers who are being hit by the illegal action of the French Government? The cost of this scheme can be recouped from the French when, as surely as day follows night, they lose their court case. British farmers need help now, not the promise of compensation later when some of them will be bankrupt and beyond help.


  Whitehead (PSE). – Mr President, we return for the second time today to the grave crisis over beef, its safety and circulation within this Union under the rule of law. All of us believe that we need the measures which were promised by the Commission back in 1997. We need them especially because of the crisis through which we are passing. The issue of the identification of beef products and the certainty that they can be relied upon is as much at the heart of the dispute between France and the European Union as it is at the heart of the concerns of safety which have preoccupied both the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on the Environment over the last two years.

I want to congratulate Mr Papayannakis on his patience over the last few weeks. We are all concerned about the apparent fait accompli in the statement by the Council. We are having this debate in a legislative vacuum if we have no flexibility of amendment. We see Regulation No 820/97 slipping away from us into a morass of half-observed voluntary practices with no immediate prospects of the compulsory scheme which every Member of this House knows is necessary. That is partly a result of Member State inertia, but I cannot exempt the Commission from its own responsibilities. They far pre-date Mr Byrne's arrival in office. But now, as he has to clear up this mess, we ought to hear from him how he will do so.

The amendments of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy set out to remedy this with a remission of eight months maximum. Some of our amendments clarified and strengthened Article 152 as the legal base.

Today the Council is urging that Article 37 be added to the legal base. This is surely an issue of health and consumer protection. I want to hear from Commissioner Byrne that he will be the defender of everything that was implied in Article 152 once it is added to the Treaty. The whole point of this is that it gives us a right to intervene, a right to be consulted and to be participants in the process of codecision. That right, so recently granted to Parliament post-Amsterdam, is now being snatched away. That has been the cri de coeur of Mr Papayannakis throughout our discussions in the Environment Committee. It is an absolutely scandalous state of affairs that we are sitting here in a nine-tenths empty parliamentary Chamber, one week before Christmas, seeing a regulation which will come into effect no-one knows when or how, with a Council which is treating us with an aloof contempt. I do not believe it is good enough. I do not believe Mr Byrne thinks so either.


  Busk (ELDR).(DA) Mr President, it is morally reprehensible and completely unacceptable that the EU Commission is to shelve consumers’ justified demands to know about the origin of the foods we all eat. The EU Parliament ought to put the screws on and ensure that all EU countries label beef and register cattle. Back in 1997, the governments of the EU countries resolved in the Council to implement labelling and registration. This has unfortunately only happened in fairly few countries, and there is a tremendous amount of trouble getting the resolution implemented in a number of other countries where not even a start has been made on setting up a labelling system.

For the Group of the European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party, it is crucially important that consumers’ confidence should not merely be preserved but also increased, that public health should be protected and that the quality of foodstuffs should be high. It is therefore completely unacceptable that the Commission should not have put this important area in order. Consumers should be able to rely upon the quality of the beef they buy, and they can only do that if it is possible to monitor the animal concerned from its birth until such time as the beef ends up on the dinner table. That is to say, the animal’s country of origin, the country in which it was slaughtered, the name of the abattoir and the identity of the butchers should be known.

The Commission’s proposal to postpone compulsory labelling and registration is quite unacceptable. We can support Mr Heinz Kindermann’s opinion and we also expect at least EUR 15 million to be allocated for the purpose, for it is an urgent matter to get these arrangements in place.


  Graefe zu Baringdorf (Greens/ALE).(DE) Mr President, Mr Byrne, you have presented the Council decision to us here today. I agree with you that this is really the task of the Council, but I would like to refer to the seventh point, which says that there must be a labelling provision as soon as possible in consultation with the European Parliament. I consider this passage to be cynical, given that this paper again excludes the European Parliament from codecision. It is the same approach as that taken in 1997 when the Commission proposed codecision to us and Parliament and the Commission tabled a proposal. We made a great deal of effort only to see the Council unanimously reject the proposal and decide without Parliament.

That meant that the Council had taken over responsibility. The Council failed to fulfil its responsibility to implement what it itself had decided in Article 19, namely to issue implementing provisions on 1.1.2000. Then Parliament was again taken to task and again it fulfilled its obligation. We have not moaned and groaned, we have sat down and got on with the work – on the subject of which, Mr Papayannakis, heartfelt thanks to you as rapporteur and to Mr Kindermann, the rapporteur for the Committee on Agriculture, and to the administration and legal service. Everyone has made an effort! There was good coordination between the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on the Environment. We negotiated with the Commission. We put our cards on the table and said, excuse me, but we have a contribution to make to this procedure. The result: do or die! If you want to be part of the procedure, then you must divorce yourself from it as far as the content is concerned, otherwise we will not accept your case!

Mr Byrne, you said earlier that the decision now rests with Parliament. This means that if we adopt what you have submitted to us, then it will go through. If we table amendments which really are justified, over which we have taken time and trouble, then you will decide without us. This is a snub to Parliament by the Council which we are not prepared to accept.

Now to the role of the Commission. The Commission has told us that there is no longer any time for implementing provisions. Please, indulge us! We are indulgent and where does it get us? Since the way in which we have amended it obviously does not suit you, you go on to the next proposal by introducing the compulsory system under Article 19, saying at the same time that the voluntary system will be extended by one year, thereby excluding Parliament from the process. That too is a snub to Parliament which we cannot accept. We take the view that Article 19 does not legally allow this postponement. We have been involved in a procedure since the 1997 decision and we shall most probably find ourselves involved in a procedure again after this decision, which means, furthermore that it would be in the consumers’ interest to draw up an urgently needed timetable with us in order to ensure the reasonable and timely application of this compulsory labelling system.


  Hyland (UEN). – Mr President, I welcome this opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate and to open with the comment that an early and satisfactory resolution of the controversy surrounding food safety is of paramount importance to consumers, to our farmers and indeed to the food industry.

Already the fall-out from BSE has cost farmers millions of pounds and left consumers both confused and bewildered. While not detracting from the seriousness of the situation, the impact on consumer confidence has been far greater in my view than the actual threat to public health. It is for this reason that we must quickly put beyond doubt the safety of all food, including beef, through a credible and totally transparent traceability programme. Delays at this stage are unacceptable and Parliament must keep up the pressure on the Council and on Member States to conform fully with our revised food laws.

It has been agreed to accept the recommendations of the Scientific Committee as the basis for all decisions on the public health aspect of food production. To do otherwise in my view would be to politicise unnecessarily what is now a priority EU agenda and indeed would do nothing to restore consumer and farmer confidence. I sat through an earlier debate relating to this today and one might wonder whether Parliament is united in accepting the basic principle of the recommendations of the Scientific Committee.

From a consumer perspective, labelling is, of course, part of the resolution of this problem. It must be clear, it must be understandable: a point that has been made here on many occasions, but it is not the answer to the public health aspect of food production.

I believe our farmers – and, if I may say so, particularly Irish farmers – have no difficulty in producing a product of the highest quality and safety. In many respects they have been made the scapegoats in the present controversy and are certainly paying a high price for a crisis that was not of their direct making.

I very much welcome the leadership provided by the new Commissioner, Mr Byrne, and his commitment to the establishment of an EU food safety agency. I know, Commissioner, that you are doing everything possible to bring this proposal to fruition as quickly as possible and it is very important that you do so.

The European agricultural model, based on family farms, in my view provides the infrastructure necessary to give our consumers quality and choice. That particular concept of the agricultural model has been debated and agreed on by our Committee on Agriculture and indeed by Parliament too. It has been reflected in the Agenda 2000 proposals.

I want to make the point that in our anxiety to protect consumers we must be equally careful not to over-regulate a sector which has the capacity to produce a diverse range of quality food. In my view there is no substitute for the quality of beef, lamb and pork produced by European farmers. This fact must be fully reflected in the trade talks still to get under way in Seattle, where our competitors in world trade will have a vested interest in frustrating our efforts to put our agriculture and food sector on a sound and competitive footing.


  Keppelhoff-Wiechert (PPE-DE).(DE) Mr President, Commissioner, as far as the labelling of beef is concerned, we are not debating the substance here today but the timetable, which needs to be laid down. We are also debating the highly topical issue of the Council’s approach and the Commission’s behaviour and position. The Commission has submitted two proposals to us on beef labelling, one which makes beef labelling compulsory in Member States as of 1 January 2001 and one which is drafted as a transitional regulation up to 31 December 2000, i.e. voluntary labelling.

The timetable submitted by the Commission must be rejected in the interests of the consumer. Mr Kindermann has submitted what I consider to be a convincing timetable. The European Parliament should agree to voluntary labelling up to 31 August 2000, with compulsory labelling to be introduced as quickly as possible. Only in this way can we send out a clear signal to anxious consumers. There can be no question of continuing to allow the slowest link in the chain to set the pace. Nor can there be any question of the new Commission continuing to hide behind what to me look very like the old delaying tactics. The delay in the implementation of the regulation cannot be ascribed solely to the Commission and individual Member States. In other words, this approach would have been totally unnecessary if the Commission had acted promptly at the time. Then there is the point that the applicable Regulation 820/97 still contains the obligation to introduce the compulsory system by 1 January 2000. The Commission’s excuse for the delay is that the Member States were late sending in the necessary reports on the implementation of the labelling system. I really do wonder if the model pupils in the Member States are again being punished here.

We must not tolerate this cat-and-mouse game by the Commission any longer! You should know, Mr Byrne, that none of us can afford to put on such airs and graces. You should bear in mind that we really want to decide on this proposal under the codecision procedure. Consumer interests must come first. Consequently, we should, in my opinion, support the timetable suggested by Mr Kindermann in tomorrow’s vote. With this timetable we really can send a signal to our anxious consumers and we should all bear in mind that we sit here as the representatives of the people, that we have been elected by the consumers and that it is we Members of Parliament who must lay ourselves open time and again to discussions with our citizens. I have the impression that the Council has already distanced itself from them by quite some way.


  Izquierdo Rojo (PSE).(ES) Mr President, the European Parliament is in favour of these measures and has also shown that it is in favour of operating in a flexible way so that these measures are implemented effectively. But the European Parliament is against the use of deadlines as an excuse for this measure never being implemented.

The manoeuvring of the Council and its secrecy with Parliament, Mr President, are increasing our suspicions in this respect to the point where we almost want to accuse them of having something to hide.

Neither do I share the euphoria of those who think that, by means of labels, we are going to do away with food fraud, nor do I share the fears of those who think that this is a form of renationalisation. It is simply a measure which will offer the consumer more information, and that is significant, Mr President, at a time when, in the European Union, confidence in food safety has been eroded.

Therefore, we believe that the Council has made a big mistake and must put it right as soon as possible.


  Staes (Greens/ALE).(NL) Mr President, Commissioner, only last week did the annual BAMST workshop take place at the University of Ghent. BAMST stands for Belgian Association for Meat Science and Technology. This year’s theme was traceability, a means to guarantee the quality of meat and meat products. Professor Jan Van Hoof gave a clear overview of the situation in Belgium in terms of traceability of meat and it should be said: there is finally some good news from the Belgian federation. Together with France and Finland, we are the only country which has completed the implementation of the present directive. However, what the Council and Commission are trying to dish up here today beggars belief. I support the observations made by all those who have intervened in the debate so far. This joint protest from our Committees on Agriculture and the Environment ensures that we want to put a stop to the Commission’s proposals and rightly so. A three-year delay for a compulsory regulation is unacceptable to us. Even a one year delay is. Let there be no mistake: we want the compulsory regulation in place by 1 September. Let this be a warning to the Council. If necessary, we will call on the Court of Justice. This is a violation of Community Law; a gross insult. I therefore urge all those present to fully approve rapporteur Papayannakis’ report. We will take a hard line on this. After all, we want to use compulsory labelling as a means to help those who want to restore consumer confidence in meat. This should happen sooner rather than later.


  Daul (PPE-DE).(FR) Mr President, as I am the last to speak, I shall not repeat what everyone else has said. I would first like to answer the English Member this evening, as there are not many of us and we are all friends here, without stirring up any controversy.

I have already said in this Chamber that British and Irish farmers are in a difficult situation and we must help them. We must work out who should pay and we must make the calculations together. If France has to pay – and perhaps the courts will decide that it must – French politicians will accept their responsibilities, but neither should we forget that those who have not respected the rules on the treatment of meal and who have placed us in this situation must also pay. We must certainly not forget them.

Commissioner, my only concern is that the 1997 political commitment not be jeopardised. Why is the Council taking a step backwards? Who are the pressure groups? Knowing, as we do, what has happened throughout the European meat industry and what is still happening in other countries, I wonder. Are there pressure groups forcing it to move backwards, to go back on what has already been done in this industry in terms of labelling and also in terms of the consumer in order to clarify things?

Can you tell us Commissioner, what proposals you have presented to the Council? Because normally, unless I am mistaken, the Commission makes several proposals to the Council when discussions are held, as was the case yesterday.

How do you expect the citizen and consumer to understand this backwards step? Why is the Council rejecting Parliament’s proposal? These are certainly not budgetary measures. As far as abattoirs and traceability are concerned, I think that the Council is adopting a contrary attitude, and will have to accept sole responsibility. I agree with today’s speakers that Parliament must make the Council aware of this. I am therefore counting on you, Commissioner, to act rapidly – and this will be our New Year present for the end of 1999 and in that way Parliament will not be disappointed at the beginning of 2000. You can still intervene and you can still change the Council’s mind.

The second point which I would like to draw to your attention before the start of 2000 is this: let us not wait until December, as we have waited this year until November, to put a definitive regulation on the table. This will enable us to apply it as rapidly as possible, for which, moreover, Mr Papayannakis’ excellent report makes provision.


  Byrne, Commission. – Let me begin with a word of apology for my delayed arrival this afternoon. Unfortunately, weather conditions in Brussels led to the cancellation of this morning's flight and therefore I was unable to be present in person to update Parliament on the BSE dispute. This has led I know to a change in the schedule of Parliamentary business with this important debate now taking place late in the evening. I have been informed of all the work of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy and the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on this proposal. I would like to congratulate Mr Papayannakis, the rapporteur, and Mr Kindermann, draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

The business before us is the Commission proposal to extend the existing voluntary labelling requirements under Regulation (EC) No 820/97 for a further year. I am very aware that Parliament is deeply unhappy that a compulsory labelling regime is not in place as envisaged with effect from 1 January 2000. I note that there is a proposed amendment which criticises the Commission and certain Member States for this delay. However there were good and justifiable reasons for this delay. Firstly, Member States did not submit the required reports on existing arrangements in sufficient time. Secondly, not all Member States will be in a position to establish reliable registration and identification systems for all animals. Finally, the last Commission took a decision, following its resignation, not to present any major new political initiatives and I understand that Parliament agreed with that proposal.

This Commission was therefore faced with a very difficult situation. There was a very tight deadline, 1 January 2000, within which to agree a proposal laying down general rules for a compulsory system to apply from that date. Quite simply, with the best will in the world, this deadline cannot be met. The proposal has been made under the codecision procedure but full agreement between the Community institutions cannot be expected for several months. This is the minimum time necessary to agree such important issues.

In these circumstances, the Commission also presented a second proposal to prolong the existing voluntary arrangements provided for under Regulation (EC) No 820/97. This is also in accordance with the codecision procedure. It therefore is also confronted with the very pressing deadline of 1 January 2000. The challenge is to reach full agreement within the next week or so.

Yesterday the Council discussed this second Commission proposal for a prolongation of the existing regime. The Council agreed an orientation on this proposal with only one amendment – the addition of Article 37 alongside Article 152 – to the legal base. This is, of course, a major amendment which, in my opinion, does not favour a quick conclusion to the codecision procedure. Any amendment by Parliament to the Commission's proposal, which is contrary to the orientation agreed by the Council yesterday is equally certain to block any progress towards agreement before the end of this year.

This puts both the Parliament and the Commission in a very difficult situation. You will be very aware of the implications. In these circumstances, the Commission has a responsibility to act. As already signalled, the Commission would be obliged, in order to avoid a legal void, to present a third proposal. This third proposal would be based on Article 19 of the existing Regulation (EC) No 820/97 and would prolong the existing arrangements providing for voluntary labelling.

My intention would be to examine carefully your amendments with a view to seeing in what measure they can be considered. On this point I must underline that certain amendments which aim to shorten delays go in the direction of improved consumer protection, which of course is an issue that is close to my heart. I can in this context accept amendments which aim to shorten the period during which the existing arrangements can continue for a period of eight months.

However, I cannot accept your amendments concerning bringing forward the labelling of place of slaughter with effect from 1 January 2000. I have a lot of sympathy for this amendment and signal to the Council a strong wish to have it considered in their common position. Indeed, yesterday in Council I drew the Council's attention to the fact that there was an amendment put forward by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy on Monday. However, there was virtually no support. It is also a provision which would perhaps be better addressed in the main proposal on the general rules. This proposal is also currently before the Council and Parliament.

The Commission cannot accept the proposed amendment to drop the requirement for real debate between Parliament, the Council and the Commission on the main proposal based on Article 152 of the Treaty. This would be the consequence if this amendment is adopted: Parliament would give up its important obligation to participate in this debate.

I should like to add that the debate is still open in relation to the Commission proposal on the general rules applying an obligatory regime. It is in this context that the main debate should take place. It is unfortunate that discussions of these very complex and important issues have had to take place in the context of an emergency decision with a near-impossible deadline.

The Commission is of the view that Article 152 is the appropriate legal base. This is an extremely important and contested issue which is currently before the Court of Justice. On this question the Commission cannot agree to the addition of Article 37.

There is little or no appetite in the Member States for a fully compulsory system from 1 January 2000. We cannot ignore this reality, nor can we assume that we have a better idea of the obligations involved than the Member States. Member States can choose to impose compulsory labelling for beef cattle born, raised and slaughtered on their own territory. Only three have chosen to do so.

The Commission is in favour of full, compulsory labelling. It is therefore proposed that it should take place from 1 January 2001 for place of slaughter and, in addition, from 1 January 2003 for place of birth and fattening. I can assure you that I am committed to this particular proposal and to the question of compulsory labelling. It is my intention to pursue that in the period of time I am in office, and to do so quickly.

Turning to some of the questions that were raised by some of you, I will try to give you some answers in relation to these issues.

In relation to the question raised by Mr Papayannakis when he said: "You are trying to fool us here". I am not sure if the interpreters made some kind of mistake. I would like to place a benign interpretation on those words rather than a malign one, because they are open to the interpretation that I am attempting to mislead Parliament. That, as you know, Mr Papayannakis, is one of the most serious charges that can be laid against anybody. If that was your intention I reject it and resent it. I have always been open with Parliament. On the first day I came here, when I spoke at my hearings in September, I made it absolutely clear that it was my intention to be open and transparent with Parliament. I have appeared in Parliament in plenary session on many occasions in the short time that I have been Commissioner. I have appeared before committees of this House on a number of occasions also. Never once in that period of time was any such suggestion made to me. I do not accept it.


  Papayannakis (GUE/NGL), rapporteur. (EL) Mr President, it would be the easiest thing in the world for me just to apologise. I think you misunderstood what I said. It is not in my nature to be insulting when discussing politics. I do not know what the interpreter said, but under no circumstances did I mean that I had a problem with you, not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, Commissioner, the essence of my political question remains and, if you would care to, please reply to it. Did the Council decide yesterday to postpone for a year without waiting to see what we wanted, yes or no? Did the Council decide yesterday to circumvent Parliament’s opinion, yes or no? These are not insults, Commissioner. They are serious conclusions based on the Council’s action. Obviously, you have no reason in the final analysis to act as Council’s advocate.

I therefore repeat that under no circumstances did I intend any slight on your honour or your reputation and if you think that I did or if you were given any cause to do so, I apologise. However, I repeat, the problem is how you interpret what the Council did yesterday. You have no reason to try and defend it.


  Byrne, Commission. – I am happy to say that I accept the explanation and apology offered by Mr Papayannakis and the gracious way in which he has done so. Let us put it down to interpretation difficulties.

In response to his question, he is perfectly right. I am not here to answer for Council and all I can say is that I read out the conclusions of the Council yesterday. I should say that the Council did not adopt this as its decision, but rather said that this was its view, its orientation, but made it clear that it would have to await the outcome of Parliament's decision tomorrow on this particular issue before finally voting on the issue and adopting a position. For that reason I understand that this issue is going back to one of the Councils before the end of this year for finalisation, having regard to what Parliament said today and what Parliament will vote on and decide tomorrow.


  President. – Thank you very much, Commissioner.

The debate is closed.

The vote will take place tomorrow at 10.00 a.m.

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