16th May 2022

EU set for crackdown on toxic chemicals in REACH law endgame

Pro-green MEPs are building momentum for stronger substitution rules on toxic substances as the EU's landmark chemicals bill - REACH - heads into its final legislative stage, but the EU chemicals industry lobby and US diplomats still stand in the way.

Seven years in the making and due to come into force next April, the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals [REACH] law is set to impose a raft of new public health safeguards on some 30,000 chemicals used in household items from soap to baby food.

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About 1,700 of the most dangerous mass-produced chemicals - such as carcinogens or phthalates - will also have to be substituted by safer alternatives unless chemicals firms can prove they have "adequate control" over health risks and exercise a "duty of care."

But with time running out before the April 2007 target, Italian socialist MEP Guido Sacconi is leading a charge of left-wing, liberal and green deputies who want to boost the number of chemicals subject to substitution and tighten up the legal definition of the "control" and "duty" rules.

The European Parliament's final position will emerge in an environment committee vote on 10 October and a plenary vote in November, with Mr Sacconi - the rapporteur - then taking the text into behind-closed-doors talks with the Finnish EU presidency and the 25 EU states.

The Sacconi camp is feeling bullish, but the substitution push will have to overcome opposition from industry, with chemicals trade association CEFIC, conservative MEPs such as the Netherlands' Ria Oomen-Ruijten and Germany - home to 24 percent of the EU's €586 billion a year chemicals sector - all backing up the big firms.

Substitution plan unworkable

"We want the European Parliament to remain as close as possible to the [previous] common position," a German diplomat told EUobserver ahead of the 10 October vote. "Nobody wants to take the talks into the German presidency [next year] but that depends how the parliament plays it."

"The [Sacconi] plan is not workable. In many cases it is impossible to demonstrate adequate control," CEFIC expert Franco Bisegna stated, adding that REACH's real impact on the EU and global chemicals industries will only be known once the law comes into force.

"This will have to be proved by the facts. You just don't know if people will have to go to the WTO or to the European Court of Justice to try and change this later," he said.

The US ambassador in Brussels, C. Boyden Gray, has also renewed efforts to soften the bill's impact on US exporters. In September, he wrote a comment for the Wall Street Journal saying REACH is badly thought out and will harm innovation, saying "virtually every non-EU country with a chemicals industry has joined the US" in opposing the law.

Two weeks before the environment committee vote, he visited liberal group leader Graham Watson to try and revive the idea of the notorious, previously-discarded amendment 575 on relaxing REACH rules for chemicals already authorised overseas - seen as a "giant loophole" by its critics.

Going for the Oscars

But with conservative MEPs split and with Germany about to have its hands tied politically-speaking when it takes over the EU presidency in January, Mr Sacconi is "very relaxed, very optimistic" that parliament and the compromise-minded Finnish EU presidency will take his line.

Some socialists and liberals have already begun celebrating, with one parliamentary insider saying "people are going for the Oscars" on who did what to save REACH.

"Oomen-Ruijten is isolated in the EPP [conservative party]," the contact told EUobserver. "The EPP no longer lets her out on her own - she's always accompanied by [more moderate conservative MEPs] Florenz and Bowis and this makes a huge, huge difference in tone."

British conservatives are also set to vote pro-substitution after their youthful UK party leader - David Cameron - did a u-turn on his REACH policy at the start of the month, following a visit to the Arctic Circle with pro-green pressure group WWF earlier this year.

A veteran Brussels lobbyist explained that Germany's strong vested-interest in the chemicals industry would make it embarrassing for Berlin to push a hard pro-industry line while it holds the "impartial" EU presidency next year, with Germany inclined to cut a damage-limitation deal under the more pro-green Finns this year.

"So far the council [EU member states] is saying their previous common position is sacrosanct, it can't be changed. But we all know this is nonsense - it's a negotiating position," British liberal MEP Chris Davies stated.

"Everybody needs to come out of this saying they have got a balanced outcome, but if they [member states] scrap substitution it would be impossible to say this," Greenpeace Europe director Jorgo Riss said. "If substitution fails, REACH is not any kind of step forward - it's seven years of wasted opportunity."

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