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For those who were already following Europe’s policy on GM crops last century, something strange is happening. Long teased by our cousins across the Atlantic for living in the world’s agricultural museum, we now finally appear to be travelling back in time to 1999. The similarities are startling. Let’s review:

In early 2015: the European Commission is planning to conduct a review of its GM legislation; there is a freeze on GM crop import authorizations pending this review; and the Commission, Parliament and Member States recently agreed that they would allow national bans on GM cultivation.

The parallels are so clear that you could be forgiven for wondering when not whether our trade partners are gearing up for yet another WTO case against Europe for their GM approval freeze, just as happened in 2003. This possibility was even mentioned during the eighth round of TTIP talks.

Given the similarities between then and now, I thought it might be interesting to review what happened last time round.

2003: Complaint to the WTO

In 2003, Canada, the USA and Argentina made a complaint to the World Trade Organisation in reaction to a group of EU member states blocking all new approvals of GM crop import authorisations, while legislation was being revised to allow for traceability and labelling of GM products. This moratorium lasted from 1998 – 2004.

(The current Commission freeze on import approvals relates to 13 crops, some of which have been awaiting final approval since November 2013)

2006: Preliminary and final ruling of the WTO

A preliminary ruling from the WTO panel found that this “de facto Europe-wide ban”, which prevented new corn, cotton and soybean products from entering the European market, was inconsistent with EU commitments under the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures. It also ruled that the EU failed to ensure that its approval procedures were conducted without “undue delay.” Furthermore, six individual member states – France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece – were ruled to have broken WTO rules by applying their own bans on marketing and importing GMOs. Quite simply, Europe had systematically broken the rules.

Europe decided not to appeal against the preliminary findings of the WTO dispute panel, which were backed up in the final report adopted Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) in November 2006.

2009 / 2010: Dispute settlement with Canada and Argentina

Dispute settlements between the EU and Canada (2009) and Argentina (2010) established bi-annual meetings between competent services of the European Commission and their counterpart authorities regarding the application of biotechnology to agriculture and a number of further trade issues related to GM crops of mutual interest.

By contrast the USA has reserved its right to retaliate following the EU’s failure to fully implement the panel report by deadlines in 2007 and 2008, but announced in 2008 that it would hold off seeking a compliance ruling while it, the United States, sought to normalize trade in biotechnology products with the EU.

GM crops have subsequently remained a controversial topic between the two trading partners, recently resurfacing again as a point of difference in the TTIP trade discussions.

So back to 2015: Has Europe learnt nothing in the intervening years?

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