BRUSSELS, Belgium (Reuters) — Germany defeated its key European Union ally France in a very tight vote Nov. 27 to clear the use of glyphosate for the next five years after a heated debate over whether it causes cancer.
After months of indecisive votes among the 28 member states in Brussels, Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to form a new coalition after a September election, came off the fence after abstaining in previous meetings. It said it backed a European Commission proposal against the wishes of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected in May on a platform of pursuing deeper EU integration alongside Germany, had wanted a shorter extension and a rapid phasing out of the product, which is a mainstay of farming across the continent.
The commission, which is the EU’s executive arm, said in a statement that 18 countries had backed its proposal to renew the chemical’s license, with nine against and one abstaining — a “positive opinion” by the narrowest of possible margins under rules requiring more than a simple majority.
Europe has been wrestling for the past two years over what to do with the chemical, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s top-selling Roundup, whose licence was set to expire Dec. 15.
Farmers have used the chemical for more than 40 years, but its safety was cast in doubt when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in 2015 that it probably causes cancer.
The EU agreed to roll over the licence for 18 months pending the results of a study by the European Chemicals Agency, which said in March this year that there was no evidence linking glyphosate to cancer in humans.
However, protest groups seized on the IARC report, questioned the science in other studies and complained about the influence of big business.
“The people who are supposed to protect us from dangerous pesticides have failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them,” Greenpeace said after the Nov. 27 vote.
In theory, the commission could have pushed through a licence extension, but it said it wanted governments to make the call on an issue that has become so politically charged. After a series of indecisive votes, they finally produced a clear majority in favour of the commission’s proposal.
“Today’s vote shows that when we all want to, we are able to share and accept our collective responsibility in decision making,” said Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.
The farmers association Copa-Cogeca said it was glad a decision had been taken, but regretted the licence renewal had not been for 15 years, given strong scientific evidence of EU agencies.
The key swing vote came from Germany, whose government is still operating in an acting capacity following an indecisive September election. Berlin abstained earlier but threw its weight behind a decision opposed by France.
Poland, Bulgaria and Romania all did likewise, leaving only Portugal still on the fence Nov. 27. Had any of the others continued to abstain, the deadlock would have continued. An extension required 16 states representing 65 percent of the EU population to vote in favour. The 18 supporters account for 65.7 percent.
The German vote exposed internal divisions in Berlin, where Merkel is preparing for talks this week on renewing a coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks from the SPD accused the chancellor’s centre-right group of reneging on a deal to continue abstaining.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert told reporters that Paris would push to change farming practices that embraced alternatives to glyphosate so that its use could be ended.