BRUSSELS (AFP) — EU nations refused Monday to force Austria and Hungary to allow the cultivation of Monsanto genetically modified maize, defying a call from the European Commission, the Czech EU presidency said.
Only five of the 27 European Union nations -- Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia -- supported the EU executive's bid to force the two member states to lift their ban.
In Vienna Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich hailed the vote as an "historic victory."
"For me it's as if Austria had won the European football championship."
EU environment ministers, meeting in Brussels, voted on a call from the commission to lift provisional bans on growing US biotech giant Monsanto's MON810 GM maize -- super resistant against insects -- that Austria and Hungary have imposed.
The move will further upset Washington, which has warned Europe against using environmental issues as an excuse for protectionism amid disputes ranging from biotechnology to greenhouse gas emissions.
In a separate vote the EU nations also agreed that Austria would be allowed to prohibit the cultivation of German chemical and pharmaceutical group Bayer?s T25 GM maize.
However the European Commission believes the bans are unjustified as scientific testing has determined the maize is safe for consumers as well as the environment.
A British government spokesman voiced support for the commission's stance, stressing that the decision should be "based on sound science."
Asked whether the commission had been embarrassed by the vote, a commission spokeswoman said merely that the EU executive "notes the vote of the member states."
However she insisted that the move to force Austria and Hungary to drop their bans must continue.
"We can't drop it," said spokeswoman Barbara Helferrich after the vote.
If science says there is no evidence that the product is dangerous then "there is no reason" to go against it, she said.
"We now are in a position to either come forward with the same proposal, change the proposal, -- but we need reasons to do so -- or change the procedure in and of itself.
"You can invoke the precaution principle but you have to prove it at some point," she added.
The result of the vote is good news for France and Greece, where a similar cultivation ban is in place but is yet to be discussed.
"We greatly appreciate that the commission is paying close attention to today's vote," said French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.
Greenpeace hailed the vote as "a victory for the environment, farmers and consumers, and a major embarrassment for the commission."
It was the third time that the Commission had tried to get Austria's bans lifted and the second time for Hungary, with all the attempts roundly rejected by ministers in the past.
"What part of 'no' does the Commission not understand?" asked the group's GMO policy director for the EU, Marco Contiero.
"The protection of the environment and public health should always come before the financial interests of a handful of agro-chemical companies," Greenpeace said.
Friends of the Earth Europe GMO campaign coordinator Helen Holder was clear as to what Brussels should do now.
"The Commission must now abandon its unpopular proposals once and for all and get down to the real work of improving GMO risk assessments in the EU, as Ministers have requested," she said.
The decision by the EU nations is a blow to European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, a GMO supporter, officials in Brussels stressed Monday.
Barroso, who is up for reappointment this year, "has taken a considerable risk. It's a very bad result for him," one French official said.
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