9th Jun 2023

EU members strike deal on REACH chemicals bill

  • "Is this safe?" WWF protestors asked in Brussels as member states shook hands on the new deal (Photo: EUobserver)

Member states agreed on the future shape of the EU's landmark chemicals bill, REACH, on Tuesday (13 December) making some concessions to the pro-green lobby and small businesses.

REACH - which stands for regulation, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals - is designed to cut occupational diseases through better monitoring of chemical products.

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The European Commission and the UK presidency hailed Tuesday's deal as a "triumph for Europe" that hit the right balance between industry and environmental interests.

Meanwhile, EU officials congratulated each other with palpable relief, having already struggled with the complex 1,000 page text for seven years.

Germany, Poland and Ireland almost derailed the agreement over pro-industry concerns, while Luxembourg, Denmark and Sweden had pulled for tighter environmental rules.

But the law now seems set to enter the statute books in early 2007 after the European Parliament takes a second look at the draft in July or September 2006.

If all goes smoothly, REACH will be phased in between 2008 and 2018, with a new European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki overseeing the registration of some 30,000 substances, 12,000 of which will face new tests.

What's in the latest deal?

Member states relaxed parliament's earlier authorisation proposals but did not ditch them completely.

Companies will now be forced to substitute just 200 or so of the most toxic substances such as carcinogens with safer alternatives.

They will also have to prove that around 1,500 slightly less hazardous substances, such as phthalates, are used with "adequate control" and to suggest potential alternatives where possible.

On top of this, the Helsinki agency would grant authorisations with a time limit established on a case by case basis rather than for a flat five year period.

Member states kept most of parliament's ideas on registration, but boosted information-sharing obligations for big firms by limiting opt-outs from the so-called one substance one registration (OSOR) principle.

They dropped MEPs' "duty of care" and "right to know" clauses, which would have forced firms to observe basic safety rules for chemicals outside the scope of REACH and to disclose REACH data to consumers.

Mixed reaction as usual

Pro-green lobbyists and liberal MEPs attacked Tuesday's deal for watering down parliament's authorisation rules but admitted that the result could have been much worse.

"It's a failure to move forward to a truly innovative system of substitution of unsafe chemicals for safe ones", Greenpeace Brussels director Jorgo Riss told EUobserver. "But Greenpeace introduced substitution into the debate in 1999, so it's a sort of triumph", he added.

Swedish liberal MEP Lena Ek and parliamentary officials said Tuesday's result has encouraged them to fight for getting stronger substitution rules back into the text next year.

Small businesses welcomed the OSOR move while larger industrial lobbies, such as UNICE, said the bill would still cost industry billions and undermine competitiveness.

Some conservative MEPs, whose views on REACH are broadly in line with chemicals lobby CEFIC, said the new compromise is "sensible."

But others, such as German conservative Hartmut Nassauer feel the text still undermines the philosophy of "adequate control" and could be used to put medicines such as Tamiflu out of production.

The OSOR change falls "miles behind" parliament's previous ideas, he said.

Commission patience wears thin

Industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen lost patience with NGO attempts to paint REACH as a sell-out to big German chemicals companies such as BASF.

"As a special interest group you do not have the right to define what is right for European citizens", he said.

"I haven't seen much influence from major producers and the big companies", he added. "As far as I know, there was no contact with major companies. At least, I had none."

MEPs refused to swallow the line however, with Ms Ek joking "He would be the only one the industry lobbyists missed in that case."

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