BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - "Europe must renew the basis of its competitiveness," EU leaders said at a summit meeting here last week, placing the emphasis on innovation and research.

Their new bid to boost Europe's economic prospects through support to sectors such as biotechnology included a long list of pro-industry factors, ranging from assistance to innovative smaller firms and high-tech start-ups to promoting joint research between business and universities, and improving access to risk capital.

EU leaders also agreed to keep aiming for an overall 3 percent investment level in research and development, with tax incentives for private investment, better leveraging by public investment, and modernized management of research institutions and universities. The new European research program now under preparation is designed to stimulate private investment and help fill the technology gap. A European Research Council and a European Technology Institute are to be created to support cutting-edge research, and a new mechanism established for financing innovative smaller firms with high growth potential.

The new plans also include public-private technology partnerships and platforms to consolidate Europe's industrial fabric and to set long-term research agendas at national and European levels. The EU's own investment bank is to be given a mandate for extending financial support for R&D, and for innovative technology transfer networks.

EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries, immediately called on member states to ensure coherence of policy. It will not be enough to promote research and innovation; member states will have to be ready to approve the products that are developed out of that research, EuropaBio said.

Officials Commit To Support For GMOs

At the same time, the biotech industry received another, more direct boost, as the EU's most senior officials committed themselves to continuing to grant approvals to pending applications for genetically modified organisms.

The European Commission on March 22 reviewed the full EU legislative framework it has put in place for GMOs over the last four years, and confirmed its confidence in the system. It concluded that the EU system is one of the strictest in the world, and that it provides for both high-level scientific assessment and appropriate safeguards for consumers' right to choose.

"The authorization procedure under this new system ensures that only GMOs which are safe for human and animal consumption and for release into the environment can be placed on the European market," the commission said.

The commission position was welcomed by the biotech industry in Europe. "It is encouraging to see that the commission recognizes that the EU's legal framework for approving safe GM products must function properly," said Simon Barber of the plant biotechnology unit at EuropaBio. "Only with the proper functioning of the system can Europe hope to foster innovation and competitiveness in this vital area."

EuropaBio would like to see the commission go further in combating member state resistance to biotech products. So far, the commission has exercised its powers to ensure that new GM products reach the European market after they get stalemated through safety disagreements between EU member states. But the biotech industry would like the commission to ensure that all member states withdraw any product bans that they have based on scientific arguments shown to be spurious.

"The European Food Safety Authority has thrown out the justifications for these bans," Barber said, "and we support the commission in seeking to apply EU law that was put in place by those member states that are today flouting their own rules."