Following intense debate, EU governments have failed to agree whether Austria may keep in place its ban on genetically modified corn -- something considered illegal by the World Trade Organisation – paving the way for the thorny decision to be taken by the European Commission.
"Europe is not sending out a clear message to the world in this area, it is rather an ambiguous message with a lot of hesitation linked to it", Portuguese environment minister Francisco Nunes Correia said after environment ministers were unable to reach a clear decision on Tuesday (30 October).
Mr Nunes Correia described the ministerial discussion as "intense" and added "this is an uncomfortable situation that we're all in" -- referring to the distribution of votes.
Austria's case was supported by 14 member states -- Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Poland and Slovakia.
However, it was not enough under the so-called qualified majority voting scheme. Four countries -- Estonia, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK -- voted against Vienna's national restrictions, while the rest of the 27-nation bloc abstained.
"The majority of member states are against the commission's proposal, but the commission's proposal will prevail against the will of one particular member state", Mr Nunes Correia said, adding "that is something that has to give us pause for thought".
According to the Portuguese minister, two arguments translated into the strong support of Austria's case -- either a firm opposition to GMO products as such or a belief that a member state's position should be respected.
Referring to the second reasoning, Mr Nunes Correia said "the commission and member states will have to take some steps to avoid such situations because it is a difficult one".
This was the third time that Austrian government faced pressure from the EU's executive body over the country's ban on the use of two types of genetically modified maize -- MON810 and T25 -- dating back to 1999.
This time, however, Brussels pressed Austria only on a ban on importing and processing into food and feed of controversial corns. The cultivation ban has not been questioned.
"It's an important point for environment and agriculture policy in Austria. We will remain free of gene-technology in cultivation", Austrian environment minister Josef Proell was cited as saying after the vote by Reuters.
The deadlock at the ministerial table effectively means that EU regulators have won the power to decide on the future of Austria's ban, with EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas saying Brussels "takes note of strong concerns expressed [by member states] against our proposal".
"The commission will now consider the situation before deciding what to do next, including an assessment of the World Trade Organisation implications", Mr Dimas, who personally is seen as a GMO opponent, added.
The EU bloc has to come to a decision by 21 November if it wants to escape sanctions from the World Trade Organisation -- the body ruled in 2006 that any barriers break international trade laws.
New temporary moratorium?
However, doubts over GMO products appear to be gaining strength within the 27-nation bloc.
At the meeting, Italy suggested no new GMO products should be authorised in the EU until it is crystal clear on what scientific evidence the European Food Safety Agency bases its recommendations. The agency is used by the commission to justify its GMO decisions.
"I was surprised by the member states' interest [in the issue]", Portugal's Francisco Nunes Correia said, adding a lot of member states informally supported this call.
"The subject will be taken forward and tackled in a more formal way in the future", he concluded.