Thursday

20th Jun 2019

Commission and council dig in on GMO opt-outs

  • The issue of genetically modified organisms is heavily contested, with EU member states unable to reach a common position (Photo: Peter Teffer)

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

The proposal would allow EU member states to ban GMOs - even if those GMOs had received an EU-wide stamp of approval.

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  • Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans: 'Yes, it is stuck in council. But ... I want that to be council's problem, not the commission's problem' (Photo: European Commission)

There are widely diverging views on the benefits - and dangers - of GMOs, and the EU can be roughly divided into one-third pro-GMO countries, one-third anti-GMO countries, and another third which abstains from voting in the approval process.

The commission has often seen itself forced to approve GMOs without the backing of member states, because no majority was either in favour – or against – it.

The current plan has been stuck in the legislative pipeline since 2015, after more than 80 percent of members of the European Parliament (EP) rejected it.

It can only become law if both the parliament and the Council of the EU – where national governments meet – agree on its content.

Not on Bulgaria's agenda

However, the file has not been put on the council agenda since agriculture ministers almost unanimously denounced it for being incomplete, impractical, or unnecessary two and a half years ago.

One major criticism was that it would be impossible for member states to ban the use of a particular GMO in food products because there is a single EU market in which products should be able to cross the borders seamlessly. However, the ministers did not vote on the proposal.

Bulgaria, which presides over council meetings during the first six months of 2018, has no plans to discuss the file.

"As you know, the GMO proposal has been strongly criticised," Bulgarian spokeswoman Elitsa Zlateva told EUobserver in an email.

"Although there are some procedural steps still open, it is seen as problematic and failing to bring a solution to the difficulties regarding EU's approval procedure of GMOs," she said.

"The EP has already rejected it and for the time being the council has no plans to re-activate its work on it," the spokeswoman noted.

Not my problem

At a press conference in Strasbourg on Tuesday (16 January), this website asked commission vice-president Frans Timmermans whether it was time for the commission to withdraw the proposal.

"Yes, it is stuck in council. But, you know, I want that to be council's problem, not the commission's problem," said Timmermans.

"I haven't heard that we had the intention of withdrawing it. I'll check, I'm not sure. But, you know, I think council should also take its responsibility in that area."

Procedurally, Timmermans is correct to point out that the council should take an official position on a legislative commission proposal.

But politically, the commission could conclude from the parliament's rejection and member state criticism that its plan as proposed is as good as dead.

Better regulation

Since Jean-Claude Juncker took over as president of the commission in October 2014, the Brussels-based institution has renewed its mission to improve EU governance, under the banner of better regulation.

Timmermans, who is Juncker's right-hand man, is in charge of better regulation and has overseen withdrawals of politically-dead proposals in the past.

In fact, it is difficult to see why some proposals have been withdrawn, while the GMO one has not.

In Juncker's first commission's work programme for 2015, at least eight proposals were withdrawn because there was "no foreseeable agreement".

Files being "no longer discussed in council" was given as reason for the commission to withdraw several plans.

The same could be said for the GMO proposal.

'Terrible regulation'

Dutch member of the European Parliament, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, said on Monday that he believed the onus was on the commission.

"I think it would be best if the commission withdraws its proposal and comes forward with something else," he said in an interview with this website.

Gerbrandy, a member of the Liberal group, said the proposal was anything but in line with the principle of better regulation.

"It was terrible regulation. I even wonder if it is in line with a lot of other policies like internal market policies. In practice it seemed to be impossible to implement such a thing," he said.

Gerbrandy said he thought Juncker tabled the proposal because he was getting "fed up" that the commission was always having to take the decision on approving a GMO – and therefore also being the one criticised by anti-GMO activists.

"[Juncker] wanted to get rid of that. He knew beforehand that this proposal would never fly," he said.

As recently as 22 December, the commission approved six types of GMOs for use in human food and animal feed, after the European Food Safety Authority said they were safe – but member states produced no common opinon.

The non-profit activist group Test Biotech criticised the approval, days before Christmas.

"The timing and the circumstances of the decision show just how much the EU commission fears a response from the public," the group said in a statement.

Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals

European Commission proposes changes to the little-known but often used comitology procedure, which results in deadlocks whenever controversial issues like genetically modified organisms are on the table.

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.

MEPs reject Commission plan on GMO opt-outs

Food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis failed to convince the European Parliament. 579 of 751 MEPs voted to ask the Commission to withdraw the legislative proposal, which it refused to do.

Juncker's rules on GMOs going nowhere soon

Commission president Juncker promised in 2016 that rules relating to the approval of pesticides like glyphosate would be changed, but member states refuse to play ball.

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