Increased cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe remained a distant prospect on Friday, after governments failed to agree a plan to let them decide individually whether to grow or ban GM plants.
Environment ministers from the 27-nation bloc met in Brussels to debate a Danish compromise designed to break a deadlock in GM approvals, but failed to agree the plan after opposition from Germany, France, Britain and others.
Before the meeting, Britain had been seen as the most likely to change its position, which could have been enough to secure majority EU backing for the plan.
But with Britain demanding major changes to the compromise to withdraw its opposition, an official from the Danish EU presidency said it was hard to see how London's demands could be met without losing the support of other EU countries.
"I wouldn't call this proposal completely dead," Danish Environment Minister Ida Auken told reporters after the meeting.
"There were some countries saying that the time is not right for Europe right now, that Europe wasn't ready. I will look if Europe is ready in June before I call time on this proposal," she said, referring to the next scheduled meeting of EU environment ministers.
The Danish compromise plan proposed companies seeking EU approval to cultivate a GM crop trying to agree in advance not to market the product in countries that do not want to grow it, in return for approval to grow the crops in other EU states.
If that proved unsuccessful, countries would then be able to cite certain environmental or other concerns to ban cultivation in all or part of their territories, provided they respect World Trade Organization and EU internal-market rules.
British farming and environment minister Caroline Spelman said while she was willing to consider an approach based on agreements between companies and governments, she couldn't support the second part of the Danish compromise.
"It's difficult to envisage how a ban could be substantiated and evidenced in practice in a way that's strong enough to withstand a World Trade Organization challenge," she told fellow ministers during the meeting.
If, as expected, Denmark concludes that it cannot convince the necessary majority of EU governments to back a new compromise, it is unlikely that subsequent holders of the EU's rotating six-month presidency will seek to revive the talks.
Without new rules allowing countries that oppose GM crops to ban their cultivation, the EU's health and consumers chief said they would simply continue to block the approval of new GM varieties.
"Those member states against cultivation on their territory have no other option than to block the entire European authorization procedure," he said.