Austria is set to become the first EU country to ban the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, having completed the EU’s single market notification procedure on Friday (29 November).
However, Austria’s government cast doubt on Monday as to whether a total ban on the world’s most widely used herbicide would be implemented next month, despite MPs voting for the measure earlier this year.
Parliament approved the ban in July, making Austria the first EU member state to do so, but the government has now warned of a possible legal clash with Brussels if it implements the ban.
According to a government briefing note sent to AFP, although the European Commission has not formally vetoed the measure, it did send Vienna a letter criticising the way the ban was introduced and “left open the possibility of infringement proceedings”.
Glyphosate remains a hotly contested topic, even though the EU renewed the weedkiller’s licence across Europe for five years in December 2017.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have approved the chemical, claiming it is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”. The same opinion was shared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as well as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
However, this is in contrast to an assessment by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), which concluded in 2015 that the herbicide solution was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Supporters of the ban were quick to point out on Monday that Brussels had not sought to prevent the ban from coming into force.
Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg told EURACTIV that there have been “only two comments about the plan from the European Commission and Italy, but no detailed opinions” but that Austria is under no formal obligation to reply to them.
The environmental organisation said that “the glyphosate ban can, therefore, enter into force on January 1, 2020, as planned (in the bill)”, a stance echoed by the Green party.
Achterberg added that the ban represents an “important milestone to protect people’s health and preserve wildlife” and should be “an example for other countries and the EU as a whole.”
Asked about the matter on Monday, Austria’s environment ministry could not confirm how, or when, the ban would enter into effect.
The technocrat government said it was waiting for the European Commission to rule on whether the ban would conform to EU rules.
July’s vote in parliament took the government by surprise as it had not proposed the legislation. It passed thanks to a temporary alliance of all parties in parliament save the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP).
The current caretaker administration took over after the collapse of the previous ÖVP-led government in May and will remain in place until a new coalition emerges from the results of early elections held in September.
The ÖVP, led by ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, was far the single strongest party in the poll and is now in coalition talks with the other big winners of September’s poll, the Greens, who support the glyphosate ban.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]