BRUSSELS - European Union regulators may be dragging their heels with their proposal to order farming powerhouse France to end its ban on growing biotech maize, fearing another rebuff by other EU states, officials said.
France slapped a ban on growing genetically modified maize in February 2008. The European Commission, which administers farm and environment policy for the bloc's 27 member countries, wants the ban lifted, saying it is not scientifically justified.
"The Commission is theoretically obliged to present this proposal 'without delay' but it's possible to play about a bit with timing," an EU diplomat said.
The EU executive has already tried once, presenting a draft order to a panel of EU experts last month for France to scrap the ban. It wasn't approved, meaning that the Commission would now usually escalate the paperwork to EU ministers.
But it has not yet done so, which has raised some eyebrows in Brussels and elsewhere. Part of the reason, diplomats say, is the resounding defeat endured by the Commission in early March when an overwhelming majority of EU countries rejected its proposals for Austria and Hungary to end similar GM maize bans.
"I would assume the safeguard clauses (bans) are dead and I don't think it's worth going to Council (of EU ministers) on France and Greece," one Commission official said at the time.
MON 810 maize, developed by U.S. biotech company Monsanto (MON.N), is the only GM crop that may be grown commercially in the European Union at present.
France's ban is also conditional on the EU renewing its 10-year approval of MON 810, which expired in April 2008. If the renewal is granted, as is likely, the French ban would lapse.
Again, the timing for the licence renewal is unclear.
While the renewal application is under review -- it is now being examined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) -- MON 810 may still be grown; and EFSA may deliver its risk assessment as early as this month, officials say.
"On the basis of the EFSA scientific opinion, the Commission will decide on its proposal," another Commission official said.
National GMO bans are the only area of EU biotech policy where countries can muster enough consensus under the bloc's complex weighted voting rules to secure an agreement.
TIMING COULD BE KEY
Political timing may also be a reason for delaying tactics. Once the Commission lodges its draft order with EU ministers, it has to appear on a meeting agenda within three months.
With European Parliament elections due in June and then his expected renomination as head of the EU executive, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso would be interested in keeping France's government 'on side' for the moment, diplomats said.
"Let's say that you could easily gain between six and nine months," an EU diplomat said.
"Some people are saying Barroso doesn't want another defeat before the parliament elections and before his nomination," said one, adding that EU environment ministers might discuss the issue informally on the margins of their meeting on June 25.
Under EU law, the Commission is not supposed to hesitate in sending the file to EU ministers. It is already facing a court case by one international biotech company for 'undue delay' in processing an application for approval of its GMO maize product.
"The Commission's other argument is to wait for the European elections to be over so as to avoid all risk of an anti-Barroso campaign fuelled by the GMO issue," he said.
(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, Editing by Peter Blackburn)