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26th Jan 2020

Analysis

Endocrine legislation could be delayed years after veto

  • Swedish social democratic MEP Jytte Guteland urged her colleagues to object to the European Commission's definitions of endocrine disruptors. (Photo: European Parliament)

EU legislation on endocrine disruptors could take years to emerge, after the European Parliament last week blocked an EU effort to define toxic chemicals, amid allegations that the file had been watered down by the chemicals industry.

In a vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday (4 October) 389 MEPs voted to shoot down the European Commission's proposal to define endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) - that is, chemicals that can interfere with human hormone systems at certain dosages.

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MEPs said the EU executive had overstepped its powers by including a loophole that would exempt some chemicals in pesticides from being identified as endocrine disruptors.

Such a step was unlawful, lawmakers argued, because it would change an essential element of the EU plant protection products legislation, something that could only be done by co-decision.

'Endocrine disruptors' disrupt decision-making process

In this case, the criteria were set by comitology - a technical committee featuring the Commission and expert representatives of EU member states - rather than co-decision, the ordinary legislative process that gives the European Parliament and the Council equal rights to amend and approve a proposal by the Commission.

Socialist, green and left-wing MEPs argued that the derogation had been included because of lobbying of the chemical industry.

"The European Parliament has today stood up for people's health and the environment," Swedish social democratic MEP Jytte Guteland said after the vote.

She said that MEPs and the Council "have already clearly decided to ban all endocrine disruptors. The Commission was only mandated to set scientific criteria to identify the endocrine-disrupting substances, nothing more. Instead, it decided to include a derogation for certain substances, thereby creating a huge loophole in the legislation."

Together with Dutch green MEP Bas Eickhout, she led the objection to the Commission's proposal.

Speaking to EUobserver, she called on the EU executive to table without delay another proposal, which would not feature the derogation.

"The file had already been long enough in the making," the MEP said.

Lobbying by chemicals industry?

Indeed, Guteland's home country Sweden successfully sued the European Commission some years ago for failing to present a proposal on how to define endocrine disruptors fast enough, something that French investigative journalist Stephane Horel has attributed to heavy lobbying from the chemicals industry.

The proposal was finally unveiled last summer. The criteria were adopted last July by 21 member state representatives, but only after a year of intense negotiations.

Shortly before the parliament's vote, EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis recalled how difficult it had been to find a backing for the criteria among EU member states.

"The proposed criteria are … a careful compromise," he told a plenary debate.

"This one would not have been reached without the inclusion of the specific provision which is at the centre of the draft objection tabled here in parliament. This particular provision was added at the request of some member states during the negotiations … to improve their policy on sustainable use of pesticides, and was instrumental in getting the necessary support. And here we are discussing necessary support," he said.

Notably, Germany insisted on the derogation as a condition for its support, and the fragile council majority would fall without the support of the largest EU member state.

The commission could therefore draw the conclusion that it would be impossible to strike a deal that would pass both the parliament and the council, at least under the current mandate. It could also put forward a proposal that would have to be adopted by co-decision - a step that would take years.

Kicked into the long grass

A commission spokeswoman told this website the EU executive was still "thinking about the next steps" to take.

In case the commission does nothing, endocrine disruptors will be regulated by interim criteria - a set of standards that both EU institutions, health and environment NGOs and the chemical industry deem as scientifically outdated and unworkable.

"The Commission's proposal was perfectible, but it was pragmatic," said Angelique Delahaye, a French EPP MEP. "We have a situation where the current regulation will continue to apply and we know that it is not adapted anymore."

"It took us eight years to to get there, it will now take us several years to have a new text," she added.

EU adopts hormone disruptor norms

A European Commission proposal on how to define endocrine disruptors was voted through on Tuesday, after a year of blockage. A French turn-around allowed the decision.

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