25th May 2019

Champagne corks fly as EU gives birth to chemicals law

The EU's huge chemicals safety bill - REACH - charged through a European Parliament vote on Wednesday (13 December), leaving the greens disappointed and everybody else relieved the eight year legal marathon is over.

Five hundred and twenty nine predominantly conservative, socialist and liberal MEPs backed the final package with 98 mostly Green group and leftist GUE group deputies voting against a deal they say will leave killer chemicals on the EU market.

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REACH - which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals - will now be rubber-stamped by EU agriculture ministers on 18 December and come into force bit by bit from 1 June 2007 until 2018.

Run by a new Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency, the law will see fresh checks on 30,000 substances used in everyday items in a scheme set to cost European industry up to €5.2 billion in profits and replace around 40 existing EU directives.

At its heart, REACH will see a tiny handful of super-toxic chemicals - like carcinogens - face mandatory substitution where safer alternatives exist, but leave free other scary substances - like hormone disruptors - so long as firms show "adequate control."

"The general interest has won, we were able to strike a balance between industry and environmental concerns," Italian socialist MEP and REACH rapporteur Guido Sacconi said after the vote, with a beaming smile on his face.

Smiles and jokes

"I got out of it alive, I survived," he joked, adding that he has written a novel about his eight-year battle over the 1,000 page document, said to be the most complex and intensely-lobbied piece of law the EU has produced in its 50 year history.

"This is a historic day," Finnish EU presidency trade minister Mauri Pekkarinen stated. "I can guarantee the council [EU member states] will accept the result next week - it is possible it will be unanimous."

"We're setting standards worldwide and everyone else will have to follow us," industry commission Gunther Verheugen said, with even the anti-animal testing lobby - BUAV - for once siding with the establishment in a celebratory Strasbourg atmosphere.

"We've made vital advances [on amendments designed to cut back the 45 million or so animal tests required by the bill]," BUAV chief Michelle Thew said, as hundreds of EU diplomats and officials began adding champagne to their orange juice at lunch.

Devil is in detail

REACH malcontents - the Green group and major NGOs including Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth - struck a mournful note however, vowing to keep tabs on implementation and to strike back during scheduled 2012 and 2013 REACH reviews.

"Major loopholes in REACH will allow many chemicals that can cause...cancer, birth defects and reproductive illness, to continue being used in manufacturing and consumer goods," a green NGO-coalition statement said.

"This deal is an early Christmas present for the chemicals industry, rewarding it for its intense and underhand lobbying campaign," UK green MEP Caroline Lucas said. "The devil will be in the detail of the implementation."

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