BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union's uncomfortable equilibrium between supporting research and worrying about risks was evident even at the marathon summit of EU leaders at Nice on the French Riviera last weekend.
Mirroring the many recent examples of EU policy contradictions on biotechnology, which have seen EU member states repeatedly defying EU decisions on marketing of biotechnology products, the heads of state and government of the 15 EU members tried with only limited success to establish a coherent line on how to deal with the regulatory challenges posed by high technology.
Alongside their review of strategic issues of power sharing among EU member states and the prospects for bringing the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU, they called for both some promotion of research and some closer adherence to the "precautionary principle," which already has been invoked in the EU in the last year to justify controls on technological development generally, and biotechnology, in particular.
The summit noted approvingly "the progress achieved" in developing European research and innovation, and said it wanted to see more effort made to bring research results into the public domain and to promote the attractiveness of scientific careers. EU leaders instructed the European Commission to prepare an initial report on progress in boosting research in time for the next EU summit, in Stockholm, Sweden, in March.
But at the same time, the summit reached conclusions on consumer health and safety, in which it put the emphasis on achieving "a high level of human health protection in the definition and implementation of all Community policies and activities." It gave particular emphasis to the precautionary principle, which now is featured in several international texts. A 10-page resolution from the Council spelled out how this principle must be applied to human health, animal health and plant health, and linked to sustainable development.
While, on the one hand, the EU leaders conceded in their resolution that the precautionary principle "must not be used in order to introduce disguised trade restrictions," on the other hand, they want EU institutions and member states to "endeavor to have that principle fully recognized by the relevant international fora," and they insist that the EU and its members are "entitled to establish the level of protection they consider appropriate in risk management, that they may to that end take appropriate measures under the precautionary principle and that it is not always possible to determine in advance the level of protection appropriate to all situations."
That is the argument that has been used within the EU to refuse market access to genetically modified organisms and products derived from them, in situations where "the available data prove inconclusive for assessing the level of risk."
Meanwhile, in the immediate wake of the Nice summit, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin was preparing himself for some contentious encounters over the coming week with the European Parliament, where concern over the risks of research - particularly in biotechnology - repeatedly has outweighed appreciation of its possible benefits. A new Parliament committee designed specifically to look at the problems raised by biotechnology and ethics is due to be created when the Parliament meets this week in Strasbourg, France, and Busquin will be taking part in the Parliament debate that will formalize the move.
One of Busquin's key advisers, Kurt Vandenberghe, told BioWorld International on Monday that the commissioner is determined to keep the door open as far as possible for biotechnology research in Europe. "Companies are already moving their biotechnology research facilities out of Europe to the USA because of the climate in Europe," he said, "and the trend will continue unless there is a change in the EU. This means that in 10 years Europe is faced with being vulnerable to almost total U.S. domination in biotechnology products. So it is necessary to encourage biotechnology research and development in Europe, even while retaining the precautionary principle."