citizens initiative petition will soon be presented to the European Commission under new rules created by the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty gives citizens the right to demand that the EU look into a specific issue if they can collect 1 million signatures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the petition concerns one of the hottest and most controversial issues with the European public: genetically modified crops.
As an American, it’s been interesting to watch the GM debate progress here in Europe. Genetically modified crops are now widely used in the United States, and it was never a very hot or controversial topic there. GM crops and even GM food does not seem to bother the American public very much. The exact opposite is true here in Europe, where the public across member states remains concerned about GM. Across Europe the media has been very hostile to these so-called "Frankenfoods". In the US the issue has gotten barely a mention.
Because of this, the EU has been very restrained in authorizing any GM crops for growth in Europe. But as the field of GM crops has become more and more advanced, EU member state governments have become split on the issue. Certain states, such as Austria, are extremely concerned over GM and think the EU has already authorized too many. They’ve been asking for the right to ban the planting of crops authorized by the EU within their territory. Other states think the EU is being too slow in authorisations and that as a consequence Europe is falling behind countries like the United States who are making technological advances in agriculture.
So this summer, the European Commission attempted to make everyone happy by putting forward a proposal that would allow member states to “opt out” of GM authorisations and enact their own national bans – an exception to normal common market rules. As an implied trade-off for this concession though, the commission would likely speed up its GM authorisations.
In fact the compromise seems to have made neither member state governments nor the public happy. At an agriculture ministers meeting two weeks ago ministers were overwhelmingly opposed to the ban, with the largest agricultural member states such as France saying the EU needs a unified policy on GM, not a fragmented checkerboard. The governments which are opposed to GM also weren’t happy with the proposal because they’re worried about cross-contamination from their neighboring countries who do grow the GM crops. And since the proposal requires the approval of a qualified majority of member states, it looks like it is most likely dead. The proposal has also received a hostile reaction from green groups and NGOs, who suspect the compromise is actually an excuse for the commission to drastically ramp up its GM authorisations.
Lisbon Treaty rules. The petition, which reached the required threshold of one million signatures on 28 September, calls on the commission to enact a moratorium on all new approvals of GM crops until the EU authorisation system is strengthened. It also calls for the establishment of “an independent, ethical, scientific body” to assess the impact of GM crops. The petition contains signatures from all 27 EU member states.
The timing of this first citizens initiative is interesting for two reasons. On one hand, it comes at precisely the exact moment when it’s looking like the commission is going to have to formulate a new strategy on GM anyway. If there are voices within the commission that have been calling for a GM moratorium until more scientific research has been conducted, their hand will be strengthened by this petition. Whether these petitions are going to become an important force in EU policy making in the future is highly doubtful. But the fact that this is the first one gives the commission an extra incentive to acquiese to its demands, or to at least appear to take it seriously. It would be quite a PR coup for the commission to say the very first citizens initiative resulted in a dramatic new direction for policy.
The other reason the timing is interesting is that even as this first petition is being handed in, the institutions are still debating about what exactly this citizens initiative thing is all about. Last I heard, the final arrangements for it are not set to be formally codified until the end of the year. This first petition will be an interesting test case for the whole process, and it’s interesting that it is concerning such a hot topic.