New update on the European Commission’s PRM regulation proposal

Today, the British stakeholder group that has been working on the European Commission’s proposal for a regulation on plant reproductive material (PRM) met virtually. It was an opportunity to review the latest developments and to attempt to understand what will happen next. The group includes trade bodies, amateur bodies, growers, distributors, breeders and representatives from DEFRA.

Note that the interpretations below are mine and mine alone and do not represent the position of the group, any of its members or DEFRA.

The refusal of the Commission to withdraw the proposal after being requested to do so by Parliament has resulted in a certain amount of tension in Brussels. This regulation was supposed to pass through the legislative process using the new co-decision procedure that was the outcome of the Lisbon Treaty discussions, and the apparent failure of that process does not reflect well on any of the parties, particularly the Commission. Whilst this is unlikely to be an election issue in the UK (it may be on the continent, where the media and voters tend to follow these things more closely), it is certainly not a PR success.

The ball is now firmly in the European Council’s court. Next steps will be decided by the COREPER 1 committee which consists of representatives of the Member States and which sets the agenda and decides procedural matters for the Council – until this process is complete, it is not possible to put a timescale on things. Then Council will decide on one of several courses of action available which include, but are perhaps not limited to, the following:

  • Align with the wishes of the European Parliament and reject the regulation outright. It will then be up to the Commission to either abandon the regulation (unlikely in the context of the package of regulations to which this one belongs) or to create a new draft.
  • Call a halt to any further action until a new Parliament is in position post-elections and a new Commission has been appointed. This will take until the end of the year. After that, it may be that a new Parliament and Commission may be able to work together; equally, they may be further apart.
  • The Council could discuss the matter and create an idea of what a modified proposal would look like, make recommendations to the Commission and then ask the Commission to rewrite it accordingly.
  • The Council could create a radical redraft of the regulation to present, with the risk that it may be rejected by Parliament again.

Any of these outcomes is possible or another unanticipated outcome may occur. Furthermore, progress may be very slow or very quick.

It seems fairly certain that the regulation will survive in some form, but there may be opportunities for Member States to push for certain concessions. Areas where the Commission may give ground include:

  • Article 50 (requirement for officially recognised description) – move to a system where varietal identity is bound up with assured traceability (e.g. I obtained this plant material from supplier “x” who holds a true to type mother stock – retaining a need for varietal descriptions with the need for them to be “officially recognised”);
  • Removal of PRM for gardeners from the regulation, or at least making the requirements absolutely minimal – although how “PRM for gardeners” could be defined accurately may be tricky (in recent years, packet size has been used to exempt seeds sold in modest quantities to gardeners, but this would not work for other forms of PRM, such as young plants, which may be sold in units of one both to the trade and to the end user; also, what is a “packet”? Is a tray a packet? Or a pot?);
  • Agricultural seeds quality requirements – moved to less prescriptive system to a system based on outcomes.

Our stakeholder group would also like to see an improved definition of “PRM”. The current draft of the regulation includes all plant material intended for growing on as PRM, such as seed, in vitro tissue culture material, unrooted cuttings, rooted cuttings, young plants, scions, etc. This is too vague, and means that the same plant may or may not be PRM by virtue only of its context (example: is a young strawberry plant in a garden centre PRM when the same plant supplied to a commercial fruit grower certainly is?). It may also be advantageous to move the emphasis away from (but not excluding) consumer protection and towards the protection of biodiversity, taking biodiversity in its broadest sense to include cultivated plant varieties.

It seems most likely that there will be some sort of hiatus whilst the elections take place in May, the new Parliament forms and the new Commission is appointed in the autumn. In the meantime, it is quite possible that the Council will continue to work on the regulation. Overall, the feeling in the group is that it would be better to hammer the regulation into something workable, including all the amendments we proposed via MEPs, than to have continued uncertainty and a void. But, my feeling is that we may have to go through this entire process of review, campaign, lobbying and more when a new draft comes along. Spectators might recall that many members of the stakeholder group have given their time and energy to the project for free, simply because we want to see our industry and horticultural biodiversity protected.

Either way, it hasn’t gone away. It is not over yet.

Further update on the European Commission PRM regulation proposals

There has been much in the news recently about developments in Brussels regarding the European Commission’s proposed regulation on plant reproductive material (PRM). The plain facts are these – both COMENVI and COMAGRI, the two committees involved with the proposal, voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposed regulation in its current forms. This then went to a plenary vote in the full EU Parliament, in other words all the MEPs from all 28 member nations that we are being asked to re-elect later this year.

Mindful of the fact that I am not an expert, I asked Dr Chris Hartfield of the National Farmers Union if I could quote from his analysis of the situation, to which he kindly agreed. Chris has been very active on this issue, both in the UK and in Brussels, and is a member of our stakeholder group. Growers of all sizes should consider him a friend. Note that the quotes below are his, but the other commentary is mine alone and only I should be held culpable for any errors or inaccuracies.

The Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the Commission proposal. But then the Commission stated that while they were willing to discuss how to improve the proposal, they were not prepared to withdraw it.
As a consequence the Chair of COMAGRI intervened, and in response to the Commission disregarding the Parliament position he invoked a procedure to conclude the first reading, which was voted on and supported. The result is that the first reading concluded at Parliament with no position.

This seems odd. I’m not an expert on the legislative process, but I don’t believe that we would have an equivalent process in the Westminster Parliament. In essence, the MEPs have thrown their hands in the air and said “this is too difficult to fix” – in spite of the fact that a large number of clearly worded and precisely drafted amendments were suggested by MEPs under the guidance and influence of stakeholders.

Chris goes on:

[This] is a huge mess and really the worst of all possible outcomes – because not only do we have no changes, going forward the second reading is always much harder to influence – so we have a reduced ability to influence. The second reading will start on the basis of the Council position, and MEPs will have much less opportunity to put forward amendments. Industry success going forward will also be much more dependent on getting support from Member State representatives. Which is fine if everyone agrees on an issue – but if there is any difference in opinion of stakeholders we know the Member State position is likely to get watered down to the lowest common denominator.
I think we all welcomed the interest and huge support of MEPs. The problem is that at some point this erupted and spilled over from being focussed on making specific amendments, to calling for the whole proposal to be thrown out. That’s when we (as an industry) lost control of the process. I can only refer to what we [the NFU] were doing – and that was pressing for specific amendments, not a wholesale rejection.

I should add that this was the agreed position of nearly everyone in our stakeholder group and DEFRA. We all felt that it was better to try and morph the proposal into something that reflected existing legislation and existing industry practice and that could accommodate the wide range of interests from amateurs, collectors, gardeners, growers, breeders and retailers. Personally, I think we had got there with our amendments – they would have given a regulation that would have both protected the consumer (the Commission’s original and very laudable ambition) and protected the industry and the diversity of horticulture. There would have been additional regulation, but it would not have been burdensome.

Chris continues:

The wheels tend to come off with these things when they get politicised, then the factual arguments and logical positions get lost. MEPs are politicians and understandably end up listening to the masses – their electorate – the mass message they got [via media coverage] I guess was to throw out the proposal altogether. Or that certainly seemed the ‘easy’ option given the vast number of amendments.
The EU is a trialogue process – the Commission, the Council, the Parliament. You can argue that the Commission has done its job in producing a proposal (albeit a flawed one), the Council has done its job so far in working through that proposal, and it is the European Parliament’s job to amend the proposal and smack it into some kind of form it finds acceptable – but the Parliament has failed to do this job. It got a good way there with a massive number of amendments, but then appears to have thrown its hands up and said that the proposal is just too hard to amend, so let’s reject it wholesale.

Consider that last paragraph when you place your X at the ballot box in May.

You’ll be wondering what happens next. Well, essentially, the Commission now takes the proposal to the Council, which has already been working on it. The Commission can withdraw the text, although that seems very unlikely. The Council has the power to reject it wholesale, but that also seems unlikely. All we can hope is that there will be sufficient unanimity between the Member States to get the changes through that we hope for and need. If not, then we will be saddled with a burdensome regulation that may have all the implications that we originally feared.

And that would be a disaster.