BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ Belgium, the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has come out strongly in favor of maintaining the ban on authorizing new GMOs in the EU.

Belgian Environment Minister Magda Alvoet, who chairs the EU¿s Council of Environment Ministers, defended the decision on Tuesday, describing it as a ¿positive sign¿ that ¿Belgium is focusing its concerns on the environment and consumers.¿

The de facto moratorium on the authorization of genetically modified organisms in the European Union has been in effect since 1998, and no new marketing of GMOs has been allowed in the EU since then. The moratorium is actively supported by France, Denmark, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg, which together have enough votes within the EU environment council to block any requests for fresh authorizations, even if other member states (such as the UK) backed the idea.

In recent months, the European Commission has repeatedly urged the EU member states to lift the moratorium, so as to avoid damaging trade and discouraging EU research and development. But in response to the Commission¿s initiatives, Belgium has, for the first time, clearly indicated that it is fully behind the moratorium. Belgium has decided that new EU regulations concerning traceability and labeling will have to be formally approved and put in place before the moratorium can be lifted. EU proposals for such legislation have been made, but the discussions are still continuing within the EU¿s institutions.

¿There can be no question of lifting the moratorium until there are clear regulations,¿ Alvoet said.

She admitted in her statement that the moratorium already costs the U.S. biotech industry money, and has led the United States to threaten to have sanctions imposed on the EU by the World Trade Organization for impeding commerce. But she took pride in the fact that the presidency was taking a strong stand in the face of growing pressure to lift the moratorium. ¿It is only logical to first provide a good, coherent legislative framework and then take other measures,¿ she said. ¿Belgium is sending out such a clear signal to the Commission.¿

The Belgian government will not discuss the issue again until October 2002, she said.

Brussels biotechnology industry executives and EU diplomats concur that this strong position adopted by the current EU presidency is a powerful psychological blow against the efforts to get the moratorium lifted in the foreseeable future. Alvoet is linked to Belgian pro-ecology parties, and is well known for her strong environmentalist views.

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