National movements campaigning against genetic engineering are helping to democratise the EU. That was the result of a recently completed Austrian Science Fund FWF project led by an independent researcher. According to the study's results, the almost simultaneous mobilisation of national populations reinforces public protest at a European level. The project therefore provides an optimistic outlook for the growing influence of the general population on EU decision-making processes.
The controversy surrounding genetic engineering has more to offer than simply arguments for and against the science. For example, it provides a model for the general public's influence in the age of globalisation. This topic is particularly important for the EU. Although the EU is involved in all key decision-making areas, debate with the general population does not take place on a European level, but primarily on a national level.
Although the results of a project headed by Dr. Franz Seifert on the general public's role in the global conflict on genetic engineering confirm this finding, they also indicate that - under certain circumstances - politically effective, pan-European protest is possible.
Simultaneous Protest The project's results show that debates on the introduction of genetic engineering in the EU are held independently and within a national framework. Dr. Seifert explains: "Temporary situations occur such as in Austria, when one population resists the EU's introduction of genetic engineering into agriculture, while populations in other European countries either don't notice the protest or simply have other worries at the time. A protest coming from just one country's population, however, will have little impact in the EU."
Although national protests generally remain within closed units, a trend of "synchronization" has been developing since the latter half of the 1990s. Due to their incorporation into the EU regulatory system, national debates are no longer carried out purely in parallel. It is in fact becoming much more common for national populations to mobilise almost simultaneously. As a result, the governments of these countries lodge protests with the EU that force it to implement fundamental policy reforms.
The Opponents' Strategies Environmental organisations that are determined to oppose genetic engineering also play a key role. It is worth noting that, of the many groups involved, it is international organizations (e.g. Greenpeace) that have the greatest impact. However, they achieve this primarily through their local branches, which organise local campaigns. National governments also respond to this type of protest from their population, transferring it to a transnational level. This clearly indicates that protest which also has an international impact is supported first and foremost by the mobilisation of national populations.
These results originate from a project that Dr. Seifert carried out as an independent scientist, unaffiliated to any specific institute. Dr. Seifert comments on his approach: "This way of doing research is unusual and not without its drawbacks. For example, having to carry out every individual stage yourself creates a huge amount of work. On the plus side though, you have a great deal of flexibility." Flexibility was certainly a key requirement of this project, which saw this biologist and social scientist visit countries throughout Europe, North America and Asia and included a year spent at a prestigious United Nations research facility in Japan.
However, looking at the results, it is clear that this personal commitment has paid off. His work provides positive indications that the general population's influence on EU decision-making processes is growing, even if it is only limited at present - and will probably remain as such for the time being - due to the absence of a united European general public. As the FWF project shows, although there are no indications that any such united public is currently taking shape, simultaneous national debates can form a functional equivalent.