21st Mar 2018


Glyphosate renewal is a Pyrrhic victory for Monsanto

  • EU citizens petitioned against the continued use of glyphosate, amid disputed evidence on whether the chemical was carcinogenic (Photo: GLOBAL 2000/ Christopher Glanzl)

The final stage of the glyphosate saga epitomises the outer limits of the EU regulatory framework and the contested nature of its scientific decision-making.

How can the decision upon the future of an herbicide realistically escalate to the level of heads of state and government - with President Macron defiantly declaring that France won't respect the decision? In the aftermath of the adoption of such a decision, one may wonder who actually won the glyphosate war?

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Much of the current furore around the decision to maintain on the market the use of glyphosate vanishes when is checked against some basic factual, legal and policy considerations.

First, contrary to what the industry representatives expected only a few months ago, glyphosate hasn't been renewed for 15 years – as foreseen by the relevant EU regulation – but merely for a five-year term.

After years of campaigning by NGOs and citizens about its alleged harmful health effects, as substantiated by the four million signatures collected by the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) Stop Glyphosate supported by WeMove and Avaaz, no decision-maker could turn a blind eye to such concerns.

This suggests that what has largely been depicted as an industry's win may soon reveal a Pyrrhic victory. The limited duration of the reauthorisation is set to further stigmatise the substance in the eyes of the public thus incentivising the industry search for alternatives. In other words, glyphosate lives on borrowed time.

Second, after struggling to win member state support for the licence's renewal under the EU Pesticide Regulation, it is not the EU Commission but a majority of EU member states who took their responsibilities and voted to reauthorise the herbicide.

Germany switches sides

This was largely unexpected as until a few hours ago the Commission was unable to obtain the required majority (16 countries representing 65% of the population). The game-changer was Germany who – as the talks with the anti-pesticide Greens fell apart in the formation of its new government – ultimately voted in favour of renewal.

Third, in the aftermath of the vote, some countries who opposed re-authorisation, such as France and Italy, publicly proclaimed that they will suspend the authorisation of the substance in their territories.

While this will put them in conflict with EU law, this rebellious stance will further weaken the political and legal agreement enshrined in the forthcoming reauthorisation decision.

The very same countries, acting under the pressure of public opinion, may even decide to challenge that decision before EU courts by arguing inter-alia that it failed to take into account the precautionary principle.

Fourth, to further weaken the support for the measure, one may realistically expect that civil society groups, including the ECI citizen committee, may challenge both the EU re-authorisation before EU Courts and the national implementing measures before national courts. The last word on the future and safety of the substance belongs to EU Courts.

When examined under this perspective, the glyphosate story allows us to not only depart from the cliche depiction of EU decision-making as a win-or-lose dynamic, but also to better understand the new, growing interactions between the democratic participatory mechanisms, such as ECI, and the day-to-day EU decision-making.

This is the space that will determine the incipient, transnational political space that will be shaping the EU's future.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet professor of EU Law at HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby

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