After years of controversy on the authorisation of genetically modified maize and potatoes, heated debates on risk assessments and the role of the European food safety authority (EFSA), the stalemate in the council on granting member states the possibility to opt out of GMO cultivation on their territory finally came to an end.
A compromise suggested by the Greek EU council presidency last March paved the way for an agreement in council in July. Subsequently, parliament picked up where it had left off in 2011 and started the second reading.
The debates in the environment committee were emotional, to say the least. Every MEP had a personal opinion on the topic, ranging from fierce rejection of GMOs to their avid defence, thereby reflecting a considerable rift between member states' positions.
"Transforming the European authorisation procedure to the point where member states can ban authorised products violates single market rules"
The council position, as a basis for discussion, was not to everyone's taste. In particular its core element, the two step procedure that required the 'applicant's' approval of a member state's demand to opt-out, was subject to heated debates among political groups.
There was a widespread concern among the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals, that sovereign governments would be at the mercy of private multinational GMO companies, creating an unnatural equilibrium between the two. However, from a legal point of view, there was no way around the integration of the applicant.
A scenario in which a government bans a previously rightfully authorised GMO on its national territory, without giving the authorisation holder an opportunity to react, is bound to end up in front of the European court of justice.
However, this problem could be solved to mutual satisfaction with the final compromise, whereby the first phase is voluntary. The proposed measure further foresees mandatory co-existence measures, a review of the environmental risk assessment procedure and reporting on potential damages related to GMOs.
As shadow rapporteur for the EPP group, I am largely satisfied with the final agreement. But this agreement came at a price. Transforming the European authorisation procedure to the point where member states can ban authorised products violates single market rules.
This was not an easy decision - the single market is one of the EU's most fundamental achievements. However, as elected representatives of member states, we cannot ignore our citizens' growing scepticism about GMOs. It is our responsibility to take this resentment seriously and act accordingly. In times of euroscepticism and fears of over-regulation, it would not be wise to impose GMOs on countries that do not want them, so freedom of choice is a fair solution.
I am convinced that European agriculture should, for its own benefit, concentrate on remaining GMO-free. From now on, however, member states will have the freedom of choice in this question, and full legal certainty for whichever decision they take. National governments will now be able to answer to their citizens' GMO preferences directly, and will no longer be able to use the EU as a scapegoat.
In conclusion, allowing member states to opt out of GMO cultivation is a step forward, even at the price of weakening the single market. We need a European Union that is closer to our citizens and reacts to their concerns, even if that means breaking the rules once in a while.