EU vote fails to resolve GMO maize bans saga

Member states divided on justification for national bans in Austria, Luxembourg

EU member states have failed to resolve a year-long dilemma of whether Austria and Luxembourg should be allowed to maintain national bans on the import and cultivation of a genetically modified maize developed by Novartis. In the results of a vote announced today, five other countries refused to back the European Commission's proposal that Austria and Luxembourg should be asked to repeal their bans.

Member state officials were forced to vote on the Commission's proposal in writing over Easter after twice postponing the process - in vain - to avoid a public split on the issue (ENDS Daily 12 January). Greece joined Austria and Luxembourg in voting against the proposal, while Denmark, Ireland, France and Belgium abstained.

France's decision to abstain is ironic given that it was the country that originally recommended EU-wide approval of Novartis' maize, which it was given in 1996. It reflects a change of administration in France since the original approval and fresh concern about the risks posed by modified crops, particularly those containing antibiotic resistance genes (ENDS Daily 12 December 1997).

The divided vote means that the issue will now be pushed up to ministerial level for resolution - most likely at the environment council in June. Ministers will have to vote by qualified majority to pass the Commission's proposal, which seems unlikely judging from this week's vote.

If a qualified majority is not achieved, and unless all countries decide to oppose the proposal, which seems highly improbable, then the Commission will have to decide whether or not to approve its own proposal. A Commission spokesman today stressed that the proposal was based on the findings of three scientific committees and was unlikely to be withdrawn.

The Austrian government has made it clear that it will not reverse its ban whatever the Commission or member states decide (ENDS Daily 14 May 1997). Consumer affairs minister Barbara Prammer yesterday described the vote outcome as "an important step forward" and said it demonstrated Austria's objections to be "well-founded".

Novartis today expressed "regret" at the outcome, saying it stood by the safety and quality of its product which had been through a "rigorous" regulatory process. Greenpeace, meanwhile, called on the Commission to withdraw the proposal, saying it should recognise that the public in Europe do not want it.Follow Up:
European Commission tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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