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.