Britain and several other EU countries oppose plans to handle GM foods under the WTO, but the European Commission says that it has the authority to negotiate the plan at the Seattle trade meeting. British spokesmen said that they reject this completely, and a meeting of ministers was under way last night to clarify the issue. Both Stephen Byers, the trade minister, and Michael Meacher, the environment minister, were furious and insisted that the Commission did not have the backing of member states, but Commission officials said that the plan had already been agreed. "Member states can say what they like," said one Commission official.
A leaked EU document says that the EU and its member states "agree to establish a working party with a fact-finding mandate on the relationship between trade, development, health, consumer and environmental issues in the area of modern biotechnology."
First, the group would examine the issues, and then it would report to trade negotiators on how GM foods could be treated under international trade rules. "The initiative may reflect concessions made to Europe on other areas of farm trade," said Duncan Gren of Cafod, the aid organisation.
British officials denied that any such concessions had been made by ministers, saying that the support of EU member state would be required for such an initiative. Commission sources rejected this. A split like this, while hardly uncommon in negotiations where the Commission represents the EU members, is highly damaging coming at such a delicate position in the talks.
The European Commission insisted that its offer was completely different from parallel plans advanced by America for biotechnology. "But we believe that there could be room for a fact-finding exercise in WTO, designed to address the full range of biotech-related issues, notably in the fields of consumer development, health and environment policy," said a Commission statement issued after the row broke out into the open.
There were strict conditions on the offer, they said, including that it should only be a fact-finding exercise, that UN negotiations on biosafety should also be considered, and that no deal on biotech could be agreed until every other trade issue was resolved.
"That is the sense of the relevant paragraph of a much longer document which Europe is discussing with like-minded countries," said the Commission.