Industry slams plan to change EU approval decision process.
The European Commission has proposed changes to the “comitology” procedure, where EU member states vote to accept or reject proposals. It wants the last stage, the appeal committee, to only count positive or negative votes by EU member states, and ignore abstentions and absences. It decided that changes were needed because of repeated failures by member states to return a majority vote. The lack of consensus partly reflects the sharply divided political opinions on GMOs, but is also influenced by a significant number of member states that abstain from voting or do not attend. In response, industry groups warn against letting “politics trump science”.
Under the current system, if member states in the regulatory committee cannot reach a qualified majority vote for or against a proposed approval, it goes to an appeal committee. If that committee also returns a “no opinion”, the Commission is left to take the final decision. Such an outcome always happens for GM crop approvals, and sometimes for other controversial products, such as last year’s temporary approval extension for the herbicide, glyphosate.
Four amendments to the appeal committee stage have been proposed, to enhance transparency about the positions taken by member states, allow for greater political guidance, and ensure more accountability, the Commission says. The calculation of the majority vote will only use votes in favour or against, and this would reduce the use of abstentions, it says. Furthermore, the votes of member-state representatives would be made public.
If the appeal committee still returns a no opinion, the Commission would be allowed to make a second referral to an appeal committee made up of national Ministers. This would ensure that “sensitive decisions are discussed at the appropriate political level”, it says. Finally, if the committee were still unable to take a position, the Commission would be able to refer the matter to the Council of EU Ministers for an opinion. This latter change would provide a reversion to an earlier system, as the appeal committee stage was originally introduced in 2012 to replace a Council stage that was often criticised for taking several months and then failing to reach a majority view.
The Commission is keen to keep changes to the comitology system to a minimum, as it works without problems in most legislative areas. Nevertheless, it is determined that member states should shoulder the political responsibility for decisions in the “sensitive” areas of GMOs and pesticides. In 2015 and 2016, the Commission was legally obliged to adopt 17 acts on such products without the support of member states, it notes.
EuropaBio, the European biotechnology industry association, expresses concern over making the authorisation of new products “even more difficult than it already is”, pointing out that products that have been assessed as safe could be vetoed by politicians. A statement by a group of 18 European associations urges the Commission to consider the impact that moving away from a science-based system would have on research and investment. Science-based decisions must be central to comitology to allow for legal and regulatory certainty in the EU, they maintain.