22nd Oct 2016

GMO maize vote highlights 'absurd' EU rules

  • Germany abstained from the vote (Photo: CIMMYT)

The European Commission is set to authorise the cultivation of a genetically modified maize crop - the insect-resistant Pioneer 1507 - despite opposition from 19 member states.

According to the so-called comitology rules of the EU, some laws can be approved by the commission if there is no qualified majority in the council of ministers rejecting it.

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In a heated public debate on Tuesday (11 February), 19 states said they would vote against authorizing the genetically modified maize, pointing to health and environmental risks, as well as opposition from the European Parliament.

But their votes were insufficient to repel the law as three big member states - whose votes weigh more - indicated they would not join their ranks: the UK and Spain are in favour of authorisation while Germany said it would abstain.

Finland, Estonia and Sweden were also in favour, while Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic abstained.

Relying on a legal technicality allowing the commission to still withdraw the law, Greek foreign minister Evangelos Venizelos pointed out in a press conference that the debate was about "voting intentions," not a vote in itself, which would bind the Commission to approve the law.

All 28 EU commissioners will now have to take a decision on the maize, with the council's legal service pointing out that if "new scientific evidence" arises, the executive can always withdraw the proposal.

During the debate, several ministers pointed to the "absurd situation" where a majority of countries and the European Parliament opposes the law, but the commission still wants to go ahead.

The French, Italian, Luxembourg and Hungarian ministers were particularly vocal and warned against a growing divide between EU institutions and the public ahead of the May EU elections.

"We have a majority against it, so I don't understand how we can approve this. Even more so ahead of EU elections. This is dangerous for the image of EU institutions, it will fuel the idea that Europe doesn't work or works badly," said French EU affairs minister Thierry Repentin.

"The commissioner tells us that comitology rules are being respected. Who will be able to explain this in the EU elections campaign? Who will be able to explain that a majority is against, but still this is being approved?" he asked.

His Italian colleague said comitology is "indigestible", while his Hungarian colleague called it a showcase of the "European absurd."

But EU consumer affairs commissioner Tony Borg defended the bill and said member states had never banned GMO maize, just put restrictions on its introduction on the EU market.

"This maize has already been approved for food and feed. How come it can then be dangerous for cultivation but not for food and feed?"

Borg also pointed out that it has been 13 years since the EU commission first proposed the introduction of this maize crop and that there have been six positive scientific opinions from the EU food safety agency since.

"Nobody can say we rushed this file," he noted.

Asked in a press conference after the meeting how confident he is that the commission will give its final approval, Borg said he is "cautiously optimistic."

Borg also seemed to back away from earlier claims that the commission will have to approve the bill on Wednesday.

"This file took 13 years to come to fruition, I am very cautious about giving timelines," he said.

Venizelos, on behalf of the Greek EU presidency, urged the commission to take into account the opposition by a majority of member states.

So did the Green group in the European Parliament.

"There is no democratic mandate for authorising this genetically-modified maize variety. Forcing through the authorisation against this background would be an affront to the democratic process and we are calling on the commission to recognise this and withdraw its proposal," the Greens said.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Europe, two environmentalist NGOs, said that Pioneer 1507 harms butterflies and moths and is designed to withstand a weed-killer that is about to be phased out over safety concerns.


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