… or, alternative title: “Can anybody explain how the EU works?”
Have you heard the news? The European Commission is set to approve a new variety of genetically modified corn (a variety called Pioneer 1507 which was developed jointly by Dow Chemical and DuPont) despite the fact that 19 out of 28 countries oppose its introduction. Though the Commission declared the variety as safe, Greenpeace for example fears that its resistance to glufosinate ammonium, a strong herbicide, would lead to an increased use of such agrochemicals, with dire consequences for butterflies and moths and ultimately human health. On the other hand, some countries argue that since this variety is already being approved as animal feed in the EU, prohibiting its production within the continent’s borders would only hurt their farmers’ competitiveness in the global marketplace. Besides the pro- and contra-opinions on this particular crop, I found it particularly interesting that the decision of approving it happened against the clear popular sentiment prevalent in Europe – so let’s analyze policy-making in a European context for a change!
In a lengthy discussion within the European Council of Ministers, where EU member states each have one representative, 19 countries voted against the move, citing health and environmental concerns as well as the fact that the European Parliament, representing the populace directly, was opposed. However, you have to understand two things about European politics:
1) There are issues that the Parliament has no direct veto powers over – this one included – which means that the Parliament can voice their opposition to a planned decision and hope that the Commission and Council take it up.
2) The voting in the EU Council is extreeeeemely complicated, and has led to bickering between member states since the beginning of the European idea. Currently it is regulated through the Treaty of Nice (2003) and gives countries weighted votes in some relation to their population.
According to the ‘qualified majority voting’ rules, there are three different necessary conditions to pass a law or veto a decision the European Commission is already proposing:
- At least 14 (or 18, if proposal was not made by the Commission) countries,
- At least 255 of the total 345 voting weights,
- At least 311 mil. people represented by the states that vote in favour.
As I understand, in this case Britain, Spain, Finland, Estonia and Sweden were in favour of the measure, whereas France and Hungary led the opposition along with 17 other countries. But largely due to the fact that Germany abstained from casting a vote (since its federal states weren’t of one opinion), the opponents only had 210 votes in total – not enough to block the measure, since they would have needed 255. I am not quite certain why this vote hinged on the majority disapproving and not the majority approving – maybe because the Commission was already in favor? Deutsche Welle says that “Ahead of the vote, EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg had said that if the European EU’s complex voting arithmetic were to produce a further deadlock among the ministers representing the bloc’s 28 members, approval for TC1507 would be automatic.” This seems a little arbitrary – how can the Commission simply decide on the default option?
In any case, European environmentalists and consumer protection agencies are up in arms, citing a total disregard for the popular opinion in this supranational decision-making process. According to Deutsche Welle, for example, “Harald Ebner, the genetic expert of Germany’s environmentalist Green party, had urged Merkel’s coalition government to exercise a “no” vote in Brussels instead of abstaining. Referring to surveys that show 88 percent of Germans opposed genetically modified foodstuffs, Ebner had said that if the country were to abstain, Merkel would “show that she does not act according to the opinion of the people of Germany.”” Hmmm.
In an open letter to Health Commissioner Borg dated Wednesday, February 12th, 12 EU Ministers urged the Commission to overthink the decision and forecast protest voting of citizens in the European Parliament elections in May. In the letter, the ministers stressed that “Those who believe in the value of the EU to its citizens are rightly concerned how this will play out in the upcoming European elections” and highlighted again the opposition of most EU countries to the decision.
According to Reuters, the situation might play out such that the corn may be allowed EU-wide, but that each country can have exemptions to the general rule which would allow them to ban it nation-wide anyhow. In which case it seems that the entire process of finding a European consensus would have been a waste of time; but in addition, many countries fear that once the plant is present on European soil, it will be difficult to control its spread across borders even if national laws disallow it from being purposefully planted. On the other hand, some reports say that even the formal approval might not have that large of an impact in the field – even the one existing approved GMO-variety, Monsanto’s MON 810 maize, only occupies around 1.35 percent of the EU’s total maize-growing area, mostly in Spain, with 116,306 hectares. In other countries, including in Germany, many farmers are being cautious due to the fear of being fined or sued in the case of the spread of their seeds onto organic fields – which would disqualify the entire crop from being labelled as organic, and the GM-farmer being held responsible for the loss in earnings. Also, some farmers fear extreme actions from activists, which have been known to destroy entire fields of GMOs in protest against these types of production methods (which is sort of sad too that farmers have to be afraid of those types of repercussions).
We’ll see how the issue plays out – it’s definitely a major topic for discussion here on the continent at the moment.
What is your opinion on the European decision-making process? Do you find it strange too?