France originally proposed the approval of a Novartis Bt gene sequence, or "event," for use in maize varieties, and, after the European Commission passed the move, gave the final consent necessary for its EU-wide commercialisation in 1997. Crops incorporating the sequence are now legally cultivated in some parts of the EU.
However, after allegations by Greenpeace in 1998 that French authorities had breached both the French constitution and EU rules when evaluating the event, France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, suspended the approval of some seeds incorporating it and asked the ECJ to rule whether France could have refused final consent to approve the event (ENDS Daily 26 November 1999).
In a potentially far-reaching move, the ECJ has interpreted the request as an appeal for advice by the French court on how to handle its concerns over the evaluation of the sequence. The court has suggested the precautionary principle was not followed during the procedure.
The ECJ said that when a national court finds "irregularities" in the evaluation process which meant it was "improper" for the sponsoring country to give its final approval, "that court must refer the matter to the Court of Justice" for a ruling. If the national evaluation was flawed, the court "could annul" the approval, it said.
Greenpeace France said the ECJ had "thrown a line" to the French court by "inviting it to confirm the doubts it had" over the sequence. It said the logic of suspending its commercialisation in maize seeds crop meant it should now refer its worries to the ECJ. The court has yet to indicate whether it will do so.
If the case is referred, the ECJ it may find it difficult to resist recommending re-evaluation. No fewer than 13 of the EU's 15 member states opposed its approval for cultivation, while Austria, Luxembourg, and most recently, Germany (ENDS Daily 17 February), have applied national bans, citing environmental fears.
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