One of the first notable acts of the new European Commission presided over by José Manuel Barroso was - on March 2 - to shatter the moratorium on authorization of genetically modified organisms (GMO) that had been established in Europe.
How did this moratorium, initiated in 1998, arise? From the fact that the governments of the member states did not agree to give GMOs a green light. Why didn't they agree? Because, as elected governments, they heard and understood the hostility and the distrust with which the majority of European citizens regard that technology.
Mr. Barroso - and the "elites" - deem the citizens wrong. So the commission chose to authorize the cultivation of a transgenic potato. The decision was taken without a meeting of the commissioners. The issue is no longer managed by the environment commissioner, but by the commissioner charged with "health and consumer protection," as though the GMO question were nothing but a health issue.
The commission based its ruling on the opinion of the European Food Safety Authority, which itself had been criticized by the member states themselves (Council of Ministers, December 2008). And the authorization bestowed involves a GMO that contains an inserted antibiotic-resistant gene, while all the discussion that took place during the 1990's had concluded that such genes must not be used - a conclusion inscribed in the 2001-18 directive that is supposed to guide all decisions in the matter.
A denial of democracy, a determination to bend to producers' desiderata, implicit contempt for any agriculture that would not be industrialized: that's what this decision is. But there is a more serious aspect that affects the European ideal itself. In order to continue to impose GMOs, the commission wants each member state to be able to choose whether to authorize GMOs within its boundaries. That amounts to dividing the Union, allowing it to be pulled in all directions over an eminently significant question which is not one of simple national preference, but involves common agricultural policy. It is a ratification of Europe's weakness in the direction desired by the "godfather" it never succeeds in ridding itself of - the United States.
The commission's decision echoes another failure, in Copenhagen, where Europe abandoned direction of the discussion on climate change to the United States and emerging countries. During the 1990's and at the beginning of the 2000's, Europe was beginning - through GMO, through climate measures - to find a path of environmental diplomacy through which it was outlining a model of development respectful of humans and of the environment.
Europe is abandoning that ambition, undoubtedly the only one that gave it any meaning. The Eurocrats and the "elites" should not be surprised if Europeans most decidedly do not adhere to the feeble conglomeration in thrall to multinationals that is being imposed upon them.
This article first appeared in Le Monde's edition of March 7-8, 2010.