Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Juncker's rules on GMOs going nowhere soon

  • '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 ... to take a decision,' said Juncker in 2016 (Photo: European Commission)

Two years ago, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker vowed to change the rules relating to the approval process of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

These substances, after receiving a scientific go-ahead, are put in front of committees of member states' representatives, but these often do not reach a qualified majority.

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The commission is then left with no other choice but to approve the substance, despite popular opposition.

"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 on 14 September 2016.

"So we will change those rules, because that is not democracy," he noted.

The Luxembourgian commission chief made his 2016 promise in his annual State of the European Union speech - another one is coming up next week.

But two years since then, Juncker is nowhere near seeing a change in those rules adopted.

The actual proposed legislation to make Juncker's wish happen, was published in February 2017.

It concerned four "targeted amendments" of the EU's regulation on comitology, the decision-making process that involves the commission and member state committees.

The comitology method is a quicker one than the regular lawmaking method, which requires approval by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, where member state diplomats and ministers meet.

But the comitology regulation cannot be changed via comitology.

To change the regulation that contains the rules of comitology, the commission needs to have both the parliament and the council on board.

And in particular the council is not at all convinced of the commission's four amendments.

The council's legal service produced an opinion about the proposals last March. While most of the document was not published, it was referred to in a progress report on 15 June.

That report, drawn up by the then-Bulgarian presidency of the council, said that there was no majority among member states on any of the four amendments.

The first proposed change was that if a committee was unable to reach agreement on the approval of a GMO or other substance, the issue would then be elevated to a meeting of ministers.

"Following the conclusions drawn by the CLS [Council Legal Service] in its opinion of 2 March 2018 the vast majority of member states expressed positions against this element of the proposal," said the presidency report.

The second amendment involved a change in the comitology voting rules - excluding from the count towards a qualified majority those delegations not present or those that abstained.

A majority of member states was opposed, but some proposed to look at alternatives. However, suggestions subsequently proposed by the Bulgarians were not accepted.

"Therefore, the presidency provisionally concluded that there was not sufficient support for this amendment," it said.

The same conclusions were drawn about the two other amendments proposed by the commission.

On 1 July, Austria took over the rotating six-month council presidency from Bulgaria.

"The Austrian presidency is currently exploring ways how to continue constructively with this file," a spokeswoman told EUobserver.

She added that Austria did not intend to propose a formal rejection of the file.

Meanwhile, the amendments have also been criticised by the European Parliament (EP), albeit less uniformly.

So far, five EP committees have produced opinions of the proposed amendments.

Some opposed the amendment scrapping the option to abstain.

"The change in the voting rules seems inspired by bringing about certain statistical effects rather than increasing member states' responsibility," said Green MEP Pascal Durand, on behalf of the parliament's committee on constitutional affairs.

"Member state representatives may have valid reasons to abstain when voting," he added.

The five opinions will be followed by a text from the legal affairs committee, which will form the basic mandate for negotiations with the council.

Because before Juncker's wish can come true, a compromise will have to be found between the desired texts of the parliament and the council.

Considering the current lack of any majority in council, this may take a while.

Glyphosate and the hot potato

Last year, the drama of a 'no opinion' in the committee lead to delays in the process of renewing the controversial herbicide glyphosate.

In the end, Germany swung the vote, when then agriculture minister Christian Schmidt went against the wishes of chancellor Angela Merkel and supported a renewal.

An EU diplomat from a traditionally GMO-sceptic country explained in 2015 why member states liked the current system.

"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?", he said.

Brussels wants EU states to share flak for GMO approvals

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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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