4th Dec 2023

Beyond REACH? EU Commission dumps its chemical reform

  • According to the European Environmental Bureau, it usually takes more than a decade for the EU and national authorities to spot toxic chemicals and then another 10 years to clamp down on their use (Photo: Greg Schwanbeck)
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There were no traces of key legislative proposals in areas such as chemicals, animal welfare, and food systems in the 2024 work programme unveiled by the European Commission on Tuesday (17 October).

The EU executive has backtracked on its pledges made under the 2020 Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability — triggering outrage among environmental campaigners who accused commission president Ursula von der Leyen of turning a blind eye to chemical pollution and human well-being.

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But it has also dumped other key proposals, such as a ban on caged farming and the much-awaited law on sustainable food — once considered a "flagship initiative" of the Farm to Fork strategy.

Notably, the chemical REACH reform is one of the major proposals missing in the commission work programme.

The revision, initially expected in 2022, was already delayed until the end of 2023 for political reasons — and now looks like it will not be happening any time soon.

Covid-19, the energy crisis, Russia's war in Ukraine and the overall economic fallout have likely contributed to this delay.

Nevertheless, advocacy groups have blamed the commission for giving in to lobbyists, favouring industry interests over citizens.

"The profits of the chemical industry are more important than the health of Europeans," said Tatiana Santos, head of chemicals policy at the European Environmental Bureau.

While REACH is widely seen as one of the strictest laws governing chemicals in the world, its revision was aimed at prohibiting groups of chemicals — instead of assessing substances individually — to fast-track restrictions over the most hazardous chemicals.

According to the European Environmental Bureau, it usually takes more than a decade for the EU and national authorities to spot toxic chemicals and then another 10 years to clamp down on their use.

Hurts business, too

When asked by EUobserver whether the commission could provide any details on its supposed major chemical reform, a spokesperson argued that work is still ongoing, since this file requires striking the right balance between industrial competitiveness and environmental and human protection.

During a debate on Wednesday, the commission finally recognised that the reform will not come under the current legislative term.

"Given the complexity of the file, it is possible that the REACH amendment will have to be taken forward in the next mandate," EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, commission vice-president and current EU Green Deal chief, told MEPs.

However, experts argue that postponing its reforms creates legal uncertainty for businesses in the sector — a concern previously also raised by MEPs.

"The current uncertainties around the regulatory environment do not benefit any stakeholders, not even big companies, because they hurt the projection capacities of investors," Natacha Cingotti, an expert on chemicals from the Health and Environment Alliance told EUobserver.

She said new evidence is consistently showing how "ineffective" the implementation of the current law is and how urgent it is to reform it.

The extensively documented and long-standing issue of widespread human exposure to the so-called 'forever chemicals' — technically known as PFAS — is an example of the shortcomings of the current REACH regulation.

"Delaying a protective and progressive reform of REACH would mean a missed opportunity for the EU to renew this leadership position," Cingotti also said.

Meanwhile, additional legislation that has been dropped from the work programme includes the ban on non-essential uses of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products like toys, baby nappies, cosmetics or food packaging.

Earlier this year, leaked documents revealed that the proposal was already expected to lack teeth.

The work programme also lacks the widely-anticipated prohibition on exporting banned chemicals from Europe to other parts of the globe — a multimillion-euro business for some companies in Europe.

Although these proposals don't feature on the commission work programme, they could be added at a later stage.

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