By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain became the latest European Union country on Thursday to raise serious doubts over proposals to let EU governments decide individually whether to grow or ban genetically modified (GM) crops.
Several large EU countries including France, Germany and Spain have already criticized draft legislation tabled by the EU executive in July, which would allow governments to restrict or ban GM cultivation in all or part of their territories.
Speaking at an EU ministers' meeting in Brussels, Britain's farm minister Caroline Spelman questioned whether the proposals would do anything to unblock the EU approval system for GM crops, which has seen just two varieties approved for growing in more than a decade.
"The operation of the EU decision-making progress does need to be improved, but we're not convinced that the proposal will enable this to happen," Spelman told the other ministers.
A British diplomat said that while there is still no commonly agreed government position on the proposals, ministers feared that the legislation could make things more difficult for countries like the UK that want to press ahead with research into GM crops.
EU government legal experts have questioned whether national GM crop bans provided for in the European Commission's proposals would be compatible with the bloc's global trade commitments.
Spelman agreed that any bans under the proposals were unlikely to comply with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and the EU's own Lisbon Treaty, or stand up to legal challenges from biotech companies, farmers or non-EU countries.
LIST OF GROUNDS
The British minister also questioned a draft list of reasons that governments could use to justify cultivation bans, such as to maintain public order, which the Commission drew up in response to requests from skeptical governments.
"We're concerned that suggesting public order as possible grounds for a ban could have the unintended consequence of actually encouraging public disorder by certain groups who want to put pressure on member states to ban GMOs," Spelman said.
The EU's health and consumer Commissioner John Dalli, who oversaw the drafting of the proposals, replied that the list was non-exhaustive and could be added to and refined by EU governments in subsequent talks.
During the meeting ministers from France, Spain and Italy repeated their opposition the draft rules as they stand. German environment state secretary Katherina Reiche said simply that "we reject the EU Commission's proposals."
With the opposition of any four of the EU's five largest countries sufficient to block the proposals under the bloc's weighted voting system, the Hungarian EU presidency pledged to clarify countries' legal concerns in order to try to reach a compromise.
(Reporting by Charlie Dunmore)