Commission dismisses petition on GM foods ban

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The EU Commission has dismissed on procedural grounds the first attempt to activate rules in the Lisbon Treaty which compel it to consider making a law if asked to by one million people.

Campaign groups Avaaz and Greenpeace delivered 1.03 million signatures to health commissioner John Dalli yesterday in which people called on the EU executive to ban genetically modified (GM) crops until an “independent ethical, scientific body” was established to assess their impact. The submission includes 8,434 Irish signatures.

However, Mr Dalli said he could not accept the request as a formal citizens’ initiative because EU governments and the European Parliament have yet to agree on regulations governing how the system operates.

The inclusion of the citizens’ initiative procedure in the Lisbon pact was designed to empower citizens to have their voice heard in the crafting of European legislation.

The system is potentially controversial as the Commission is not obliged to comply with such requests. It can accept, modify or reject outright any proposal backed by a million citizens in areas in which it has legal competence.

Some well-placed sources have suggested that the sensitivity of European legislation is such that there could be a couple of hundred requests before a proposal is adopted in the statute book.

Mr Dalli said he would look seriously at the request, but the citizens’ initiative procedure was “not yet valid” so the submission would have to be regarded as a petition. “The citizen initiative is not yet launched. We can’t accept any initiative at this stage,” he told activists gathered outside the Commission’s headquarters.

The two campaign groups argued, however, that the citizens’ initiative procedure set out in the treaty was “directly applicable” and could be exercised in the absence of any other regulation.

The petition was started last May by Avaaz – a web-based “people power” movement which campaigns on issues such as corruption, conflict and climate change – in response to the Commission’s decision in March to grant the first EU GM cultivation approval in 12 years for the “Amflora” potato.

“This is a massive step for European democracy,” said Ricken Patel, Avaaz’s executive director.

“European citizens have given the Commission more than a million reasons to listen to the public and act with precaution rather than cave to the private interests of a handful of GM companies who are influencing Europe’s agricultural future.”

Mr Dalli’s spokesman said the Commission would take into account the views set out in the submission. He said “any initiative” would have to be taken into account when asked whether the Commission would consider a petition taking a stance opposed to the Avaaz-Greenpeace submission.

He said Belgium’s presidency of the EU hoped to strike agreement on the regulation with MEPs and member states before the end of the year but suggested another petition might be necessary once an arrangement came into force.

“Can there be a retroactive effect? I think that’s probably unlikely. Perhaps it will have to be done again, I don’t know.”

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