A coalition of farming and agri-food groups have called on the European Commission to put science at the heart of EU decision-making following an announcement about planned changes to the legal process which some fear could be hijacked by the anti-pesticide lobby.
As a result of high-profile clashes over the re-authorisation of glyphosate and approvals of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Commission has proposed a series of reforms to the EU’s decision-making rules – known as comitology – to ‘increase transparency and accountability’.
At the moment, the Commission submits technical proposals concerning food safety to a committee made up of experts from each member state, who then take a secret vote.
If a ‘qualified majority’ of member states – 55 per cent of countries representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population – agree to the proposal, it passes.
The Commission has the power to adopt the proposal even if there is no qualified majority, as long as there is no qualified majority against it.
The changes to these rules have been put forward in order to fulfil a key pledge from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has blasted member states for hiding behind the Commission on the issue of a glyphosate ban, but there are concerns opening up the process to public scrutiny could encourage Governments to make political, not scientific, decisions.
Nathalie Moll, secretary general of EuropaBio, which represents companies in the chemical and agricultural sectors, said: “Making the authorisation of new and innovative products even more difficult than it already is would threaten competitiveness in the EU.
“As the world is looking to Europe to lead on evidence-based decision-making, we must not let politics trump science.”
As part of the reforms, member states who abstain from key votes would no longer be given weight when calculating the qualified majority which has to be achieved for new rules to be passed.
In January, Germany abstained from a vote to approve three genetically modified strains of maize in the EU, citing ‘different opinions within the Government’ as the reason. The abstention meant no agreement was reached, leaving Commissioners to step in.
Glyphosate’s 18-month reprieve from the Commission was the result of similar wrangling.
Other proposed changes would force member states to reveal their voting positions in the committees and allow the Commission to appeal to national Ministers if those committees cannot agree on a position.
A spokesman for the Crop Protection Association said: “It is clear there is a need for reform, and for the EU decision-making process to be more open and transparent.
“The recent debate over the re-approval of glyphosate clearly demonstrated the difficulties when a political and evidence-based system collide and these proposals risk politicising the process even further.
“The crop protection industry agrees member states should not be able to hide behind the Commission, but we also believe the Commission should uphold the principles of science-based decision making.”
Ms Moll agreed, saying the European Commission had a legal obligation to authorise safe products if member states failed to reach a decision.
Tom Keen, European policy adviser at the NFU’s Brussels office, welcomed the move to discount abstention votes because the union was frustrated with constant indecision on sensitive issues.
“But other changes, such as referring decisions to the more overtly political realms of Ministers and the Council, represents a move away from science-based decision-making”, he added.
“Although standing committee is clearly already politicised on some issues, this further step would be an unwelcome development and it is unclear what would be achieved other than adding time to the process.”
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Action Network disagreed.
In a joint letter to the Commission President, they said the current situation ‘undermined the protection of public health and the environment’ – pointing out all approvals of GM crops were granted by the Commission because no qualified majority could be reached by member states.
The letter continued: “Potentially controversial proposals are not published until the Commission takes the final decision. The votes are held in secret, and no information is provided about who represented the member states and how individual countries voted.”
The proposed changes now need to be approved by member states and the European Parliament.