Council washes its hands of embryonic stem cell research debate

December 5, 2003

Brussels, 04 Dec 2003

A special meeting of the Competitiveness Council on 3 December failed to deliver a political agreement on EU funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

It is now highly unlikely that EU ministers will reach a decision before the specified 31 December deadline. If this is the case, the Commission has declared its intention to begin inviting proposals for such research, which will be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Italian Research Minister and acting president of the Competitiveness Council, Letizia Moratti, said: 'It is now up to the European Commission to decide on research using stem cells from human embryos, either alone or in conjunction with the next EU [Presidency].'

However, the chances of a deal being struck under the Irish Presidency, which begins on 1 January 2004, already look slim. Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney was reported as describing the Council's failure to reach a compromise as the 'worst case scenario', and said that she could not see the issue of stem cell research guidelines being resolved during the Irish Presidency.

The Commission, however, still hopes that the issue can be resolved under the next Presidency. A spokesperson for Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin told CORDIS News: 'It is now up to the Council and the Presidency to show some leadership and come up with an acceptable proposal.'

The spokesperson added that the failure to reach a compromise was through no fault of the Commission's. 'The Commission made a last minute proposal to try and save the day, but the Council was not prepared to discuss an vote on the plans. We are very disappointed with the final outcome.'

He explained that the Commission proposal sought to avoid the ethical objections of some Member States by not allowing EU funds to be used for the relatively simple procedure of procuring stem cells from human embryos. Instead, EU money would be used to develop and characterise new stem cell lines from already isolated stem cells, ensuring that no embryos are destroyed within the framework of EU projects.

The likely outcome now is that the Commission will evaluate proposals for various types of research using embryonic stem cells. Accepted projects will then be reviewed on a case by case basis by regulatory committees, on which Member States are represented.

Mr Busquin's spokesperson does not believe that the involvement of Member States on these committees will ensure that such research projects are blocked. 'These committees adopt a reverse approach, whereby a qualified majority is needed in order to reject the project. In the case of less controversial research using embryonic stem cells, it is likely that some projects will be approved.' To read the provisional Council conclusions, please visit: http://ue.eu.int/newsroom/LoadDoc.asp?DI D=78186&LANG=1

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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