BRUSSELS, Belgium — France's procedural decision in late September to stop authorization for cultivation of Novartis' Bt maize has thrown further confusion into an already-confused European regulatory puzzle. European Union (EU) environment ministers are due in early October to debate the next stage in amendments to the 1990 EU directive on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now, they will have to take on the implications of the French decision, too.

The European Commission — the civil service agency responsible for ensuring EU rules are followed — is playing for time on the question. The line it is taking at present is that if the French decision concerns only seed growing, then trade is not affected and the commission does not need to step in. Only if an impediment to trade emerges will the commission take "appropriate measures" against France, opening infringement proceedings for breaching the EU's rules on free circulation around the EU for all approved products. But the commission is likely to wait at least until December, when France's Council of State is due to give a definitive judgment as to the merits of the case in which it has so far granted only a temporary precautionary stay.

Meanwhile, the EU is having to deal with another aspect of the widespread European concern about genetically modified crops: the Austrian and Luxembourg national bans on the marketing of Novartis' transgenic maize. The European Commission proposed legal action against the two member states at midsummer, and the EU Council of Ministers had until Sept. 11 to give its go-ahead. But the deadline passed without a council decision. In the complex procedures of Brussels, the initiative now passes back to the commission to come up with a definitive decision that will not, this time round, require council backing. Commission action should emerge within days or weeks. *