European Countries Land in Court Over GMO Law

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 15, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission has referred 11 European Union member states to the European Court of Justice for failing to transpose the latest version of the bloc's law on the deliberate release genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into their national legal structures.

The law, known as the Framework Directive on Genetically Modified Organisms, forms the basis for all EU rules on the commercial genetic modification of crops and foods. It entered into force last October, and all member states were supposed to bring their national laws into line with the EU law at that time.

Commission spokeswoman Ewa Hedlund said today the move underlines the EU executive's determination to see the new regime on genetically modified organisms put in place.

The member states being taken to court are: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said, "I have been repeatedly inviting member states to live up to their obligations and I am disappointed that this has produced few results."

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European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom of Sweden (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Wallstrom said the new law provides the European Union with "one of the most advanced and comprehensive pieces of legislation existing in this field at world level."

This legislation has been the result of a "transparent and democratic process, and provides a solid answer to public concerns about the environmental and health effects of GMOs," said Wallstrom.

"But our credibility will be severely undermined if we are not able to demonstrate that we can implement it," she said. "It is therefore high time that all member states bring their national laws into line with the EU law."

Pressure has grown since the United States triggered an official dispute procedure through the World Trade Organization over the EU's de facto moratorium on new commercialization of genetically modified crops.

The EU has so far maintained that there is a "need for a rigorous regulatory framework" based on environmental, health, animal welfare and ethical grounds.

In a statement June 17, the EU Trade Directorate called the U.S. decision to take the issue of genetically modified organisms to the World Trade Organization as "legally misguided, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful."

Each WTO Member has the "legitimate right to strike the right balance between the different interests at stake," the Trade Directorate said. The U.S. "must not seek to influence the sovereign decisions of other countries the way they do."

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Soybeans are one of the four crops most often genetically modified. The others are corn, cotton and canola. (Photo courtesy FAO)
The new European GMO law introduces principles for the environmental risk assessment, mandatory post-marketing monitoring, including monitoring of possible long term effects on the environment, and mandatory information to the public.

The law requires that initial approvals of GMOs be limited to a maximum of 10 years, and there is a requirement for member states to ensure labeling and traceability at all stages of marketing.

Member states proposing new GMO crops must consult with the relevant EU scientific committee, and there is an obligation to consult the European Parliament on decisions relating to the authorization to release GMOs into the environment.

The possibility exists for the Council of Ministers to adopt or reject a Commission Proposal for authorization of a GMO, under the new European law.

But late application of the GMO law by these 11 governments may not affect the status of the moratorium. The Commission's legal service believes that new GM product authorizations can be issued even without the law's full implementation in all member states, officials said today.

Europe's moratorium on commercial approval of genetically modified organisms is "at an end," an EU official told reporters in February. Since then, there has been a rise in the number of GM crop applications going through the EU approvals process, which ceased operating between 1998 and January 2003.

Countries that have forwarded applications for consideration by the Commission and all EU member states include Sweden, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, none of the countries that have enforced the moratorium on GMO crops - Denmark, Greece, France, Italy and Luxembourg - are represented.

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The genetically modified plants in this European experiment are designed to test for unintended effects of transgenic organisms. (Photo courtesy GMOCARE)
Following agreement on detailed EU rules on traceability and labeling of genetically modified organisms earlier this month, Italian agriculture minister Giovanni Alemanno said last week that new approvals could be made by the end of this year.

In general, the European Commission has claimed success for its carrot-and-stick strategy to encourage governments into better implementation of European Union environment rules. A fourth annual report on the enforcement of green legislation released today shows the number of infringement proceedings is on the wane.

The new compliance scoreboard shows the number of open cases down from 301 at the end of 2001 to 263 by December 2002.

The biggest drop is in the number of "non-communication" cases, where EU member states fail to notify the Commission whether they have transposed EU laws into their national legal frameworks. These cases have fallen from 126 to 97.

Georges Kremlis, head of the Environment Directorate's legal unit, told reporters that the numbers reflect Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom's twin efforts to boost enforcement with "name-and-shame" seminars and "package meetings" providing implementation guidance for authorities.

"The fact the Commission has been tough on enforcement is a deterrent to member states and makes them more cautious," Kremlis said. {ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report.}