The EU has agreed to continue its funding of stem cell research after a lengthy debate convinced a broad majority of the bloc's member states to agree on a new research package for the next seven years.
Countries where stem cell research is legal will be able to apply for EU funding but the Monday compromise means scientists will not be able to use EU money to extract stem cells from human embryos, although they will be able to work on new embryonic cells from other sources.
Germany and Italy tilted the vote, which needed a qualified majority to be approved, to allow EU funding for the ethically controversial issue. Belgium, Sweden and the UK are the only countries in the EU with relatively liberal laws on this research while embryonic stem cell research in France, Spain and the Netherlands is allowed under restrictions.
Germany — part of a coalition of member states against using EU tax money on the stem cell research — started the debate by rejecting the proposal for the €50.5 billion EU research packaged together with Austria, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland and Slovakia.
Without a qualified majority to reach an agreement, Finland, as current EU presidency, reworded and amending article 6, concerning embryonic stem cell research.
"We clarified what we are actually doing and we committed ourselves to continue in that direction in the future," said the EU research commissioner Janez Potocnik after the meeting, adding that the new agreement was a "continuation of the existing practice."
Nine projects have been co-funded by the EU to the tune of around €8 million in the last seven years in Belgium, Sweden and the UK. Existing projects will not be affected by Monday's agreement, the commissioner said.
"This is a point of ethics," one EU official said. When Germany and Italy agreed to the new wording, the Finnish presidency wrapped up a last minute deal, which is set to enter into force on 1 January 2007.
But the opposing countries remained happy with the compromise. "We cannot approve the [package] because nothing has changed," said Austrian science minister Elisabeth Gehrer.
"Do we really want 300-400 fertilised human embryos to be destroyed to create stem cells? This destruction of human embryos to create stem cell lines is not something we can support. We do not want community money, which includes Austrian money, to support this," Ms Gehrer stated.
Her Polish counterpart Michel Sewerynski said "My government, my parliament, my public opinion and my own conscience oblige me to reject the proposal," and added that just because EU ministers had agreed to the compromise, it did not mean it was ethically right.
"It is the chief instrument for funding European excellence and innovation and one of the key elements of promoting European competitiveness," said Finnish trade and industry minister Mauri Pekkarinen who lead the meeting in Brussels.
He added that embryonic stem cell research "touches on extremely sensitive ethical questions, whilst researchers are facing growing expectations to find cures for difficult diseases."
EU law on embryonic stem cell research does not allow any human cloning, or research that could change the genetic heritage of humans nor does it allow the production of human embryos solely for the purpose of research.
Stem cells are taken from surplus embryos from fertility treatments and are able to transform into all the cell types found in the body.
If scientists could control those "mother cells" and get them to grow specific types of cells, they could potentially grow replacements for damaged tissue possibly allowing for cures against diseases such as Alzheimer's to be found.
Opponents, however, argue that human life is being destroyed when these cells are used.
EU funding can be given to projects only in countries where it is legal and after being approved on a case-by-case basis by member state representatives.
The EU's debate has parallels with that in the US. Last Wednesday, President George W. Bush used his veto for the first time and rejected legislation that could have multiplied federal money going into embryonic stem cell research, saying the bill would support killing human life.