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22nd Nov 2019

Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals

  • The EU commission is often blamed for approving GMOs. It wants national governments to share in that blame (Photo: Jakob Huber/Campact)

The European Commission wants to end the practice of national governments hiding behind the commission when controversial decisions, like authorising genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are taken.

On Tuesday (14 February), the commission proposed changes to the so-called comitology procedure, little-known outside Brussels but responsible for more than half of the legal acts the EU adopts each year.

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  • Juncker wants to get rid of the situation in which member states can blame the commission for approving GMOs

The change is a reaction to the situation that arises whenever the commission decides on the authorisation of GMOs.

GMOs need approval by a Brussels-based committee that consists of representatives of member states.

However, those states have very different attitudes towards GMOs, and each time roughly one-third of states votes in favour, one-third against, and one-third abstains.

In 2013, the European Court of Justice ruled that in such a case of no opinion, the commission should take the decision.

The same soap opera happened in 2016, when the controversial weed-killer glyphosate was up for renewal, to the chagrin of commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

“It is not right that when EU countries cannot decide among themselves whether or not to ban the use of glyphosate in herbicides, the Commission is forced by Parliament and Council to take a decision,” said Juncker last September.

Council is the EU institution where national governments meet.

“So we will change those rules – because that is not democracy,” said Juncker.

One other probably motive is that the commission is sick of having to approve GMOs and serve as scapegoat.

Or, put in the commission's words, it thinks that “due to the particular sensitivity of the issues at stake, member states should, in these specific situations, also assume their responsibilities in the decision-making process to a greater extent”.

The commission proposes that abstentions are no longer counted towards calculating a qualified majority, which would reduce the number of no opinions.

“The current rules do not incentivise member states to vote in favour or against the draft implementing act,” the commission said in its statement explaining the proposal.

The commission also suggested the way member states voted should be made public, and that the commission should have the right to refer cases to the ministerial level, so that national ministers will have to decide.

The proposal needs to be approved by the EU parliament and national governments before it can become law.

Especially the latter will be challenging.

Hot potato

In 2015, one diplomat from an anti-GMO country said that the current system was “absolutely marvellous”.

“I've always wondered how we managed to get the commission to agree to such a system in the first place. It probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Now they are sick and tired of the blame every time,” he said.

“It's the proverbial hot potato. Any volunteers for a hot potato?”, the source said, suggesting that member states would likely not accept to take responsibility.

Another commission attempt to solve the situation so far has not yet been successful.

In April 2015, the EU commission proposed to give member states the power to opt-out from EU-approved GMOs, hoping that this would break the GMO deadlock.

The European Parliament called on the commission to withdraw the proposal, while the file has been stuck in the legislative pipeline in Council.

GMO opt-out plan remains in waiting room

The commission wants to give the power to member states to reject EU-approved genetically modified organisms, but the Maltese presidency is unlikely to approach the issue any time soon.

EU fails to reach weed-killer deal, again

Painful process to agree on use of glyphosate, a weed-killing chemical linked to a cancer scare, could end up with EU Commission taking unilateral action.

Commission and council dig in on GMO opt-outs

The European Commission and the EU's national governments pass each other the buck on who should move first on a heavily-criticised proposal on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.

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