The European Commission, which thought in March it had worked out how to prise open the EU's mostly shut doors to gene-altered products, got a nasty surprise last week.
EU environment ministers roundly rejected Commission proposals to order five countries to lift bans on certain genetically modified (GMO) products. Of the EU's 25 countries, 22 voted against the proposal.
The Commission says the bans are unjustified, despite widespread fears in Europe that GMO crops may pose health risks to humans and to the environment. Manufacturers and scientists contend the crops are safe.
The Commission wants to show the United States, Canada and Argentina -- which have filed against EU biotech policy at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) -- that Europe is ready to push GMO applications through the EU system.
The environment ministers said otherwise.
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, seen as one of the more GMO-wary commissioners, now wants his colleagues who are most involved in GMO policy to discuss the "political significance" of last Friday's vote, a Commission official said.
"What is certain is that today's vote sends a political signal that member states may want to revisit some aspects of the existing system," Dimas said after the defeat.
Dimas could have a tough battle ahead if, as officials say, he tries to persuade the other five "concerned" commissioners to allow EU countries more flexibility on growing and importing GMOs that have already received EU-wide approval.
The five commissioners represent trade, agriculture, research, industry and food safety.
Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is likely to focus on the WTO's upcoming ruling on EU biotech policy, while Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik may be keen to see GMO policy forging ahead as a way to promote EU research, diplomats say.
For Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel, the main issue waiting to be resolved is coexistence: EU jargon for how farmers should separate traditional, organic and biotech crops.
Fischer Boel has often said she may consider a legal framework, maybe in 2006, for how EU governments should regulate coexistence on national territories, instead of the current non-binding guidelines. Now, her rhetoric seems to have faded.
Food Safety Commissioner Markos Kyprianou is known to want to see an end to the deadlock in GMO votes, where EU states debate whether to authorise a particular product. He also advocates a high degree of national flexibility on coexistence.
More and more countries now abstain in GMO votes, which reduces the chances of a consensus agreement. A small group always votes in favour, such as Finland and the Netherlands; a counter-group, including Austria, Denmark and Greece, nearly always votes against. The rest abstain or vary their vote.
When this happens, EU law allows for the Commission to take a decision when member states fail to do so themselves.
"You do have to ask the question whether the current regulatory machine is working. The Commission doesn't seem to be that enthusiastic for GMOs...and it's not like they are very keen for new legislation," one EU diplomat said.
"You could make changes (to EU laws on authorising GMOs)," he said. "I can't see how you could easily introduce such a major change. But they may have a clever plan."