29th Mar 2023


Corporate lobbying and the delay of the EU's Reach directive

  • BASF and its industry allies have been running a war of words to water down the Green Deal (Photo: Alex Kondratiev)
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The world is waking-up to how the human use of chemicals has crossed safe planetary boundaries, as these pollutants leach into our bodies, our soils, and our waters.

Yet the European Commission has delayed publishing its proposal to revise the Reach regulation, a key part of the European Green Deal's chemicals strategy. A revision is long overdue to tackle the weaknesses of a law that has failed to stop PFAS ('forever' chemicals) and many other hazardous substances, and which has not led to the rapid transition to safer and sustainable alternatives that is so needed.

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Centre-right political pressure, backed up by corporate lobbying, seems to have been behind the decision to delay.

German multinational BASF is the biggest chemical producer in the world and despite soaring raw material and fossil-fuel costs, last month reported to its shareholders that in 2022 its "business proved robust", with sales up 11 per cent in value to €87.3bn, and dividends promised to mirror those of 2021 at €3bn.

But BASF and its industry allies have been running a war of words to water down the Green Deal.

According to BASF's chief executive and chairman of the board of executive directors Martin Brudermüller, it will "unleash a flood of regulations on the chemicals industry, placing an additional burden on us" and the EU's proposed chemicals regulatory reform will put "a big question mark over the future of chemicals in Europe".

If you've been in the 'Brussels Bubble' for a while this may all seem familiar. And you'd be right.

The lobby battle over the original Reach regulation (1998-2006) remains one of the most contentious in EU history and as we wrote in 2005, "BASF is probably the one European company that has most aggressively fought against Reach … this is in stark and provoking contradiction with its self-proclaimed commitment to sustainability."

BASF and its allies were on the wrong side of history when they opposed the original Reach regulation, issuing hyperbole that it would "de-industrialise Europe", ignoring the considerable costs — economic, health, and environmental — that their toxic products create. Today, they're revisiting their tactics of scaremongering over costs and lobbying politicians across Europe.

From Ludwigshafen to Brussels, via Berlin

BASF's lobbying messages are boosted by both its considerable political access, and its echo chamber of lobbyists. From annual talks with the regional government in its base of Ludwigshafen and site visits from German chancellors, to participation in overseas trade delegations and regular access to government officials, BASF is a political powerhouse.

This is all backed up by a big lobby budget. In Germany, BASF declared over €3.85m aggregated national lobby costs in 2021 and at least 24 lobbyists.

It is also one of the biggest corporate actors in Brussels. BASF is the 12th-highest lobby spender among companies, declaring at least €29.6m in the 2011-21 period and using 15 lobby consultancies and law firms to support its influencing in that decade.

It has more European Parliament access passes (19) than any other company in the EU register, and since July 2019 33 MEPs have reported a total of 53 meetings with BASF lobbyists on various topics. This includes 15 meetings reported by six German MEPs from the centre-right EPP group.

It's impossible to talk about BASF's political influence, especially in Brussels, without talking about the role it plays as a member of many powerful industry associations which help amplify its messaging and further boost its access to decision-makers.

BASF's chief executive Martin Brudermüller is especially well-connected, being the president of CEFIC and the vice-president of the VCI (the European and German chemicals industry lobbies respectively).

VCI has been vocal in challenging the proposed revision of Reach and the EU Green Deal, while CEFIC has been arguing for public funding to support this industry.

With their own multi-million euro lobby budgets spent in Brussels or Berlin, and in VCI's case a €5m plus spend on party political donations in Germany since 2000, we can see how the chemicals industry has been so successful in catching the ear of politicians.

Time to end decision-makers' chemical romance

But it doesn't have to be this way.

For too long decision-makers have drunk the BASF Kool-Aid. It seems that they have allowed its economic power within Germany's export-led growth model to translate into political power, enabling access, connections, and wider influencing to deliver too much of its lobby agenda.

It's time to tackle this big polluter and its oversized political power. It's time to reclaim regulation and to prioritise sustainability and justice over corporate power.

At the EU level, the commission's delay in publishing the Reach revision has serious consequences and is perpetuating the shortcomings in the current rules which inadequately protect the people and planet.

It's now urgent for EU commission president von der Leyen to publish a robust Reach revision proposal by June, so that EU law-makers can at least have time to establish positions before the EU elections in spring 2024.

Above all, it's time to kick climate and toxic polluters out of political decision-making.

Author bio

Vicky Cann is a researcher with Corporate Europe Observatory.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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