REACH debate coming to a head
After two years of heated discussion and controversy,
MEPs and lobbyists are gearing up for a decisive clash as the draft
REACH bill goes to the EU Parliament in a first reading vote
Before 1981, chemical companies were not obliged to
formally produce safety data for their products before they were
allowed onto European markets. Authorities could place bans or restrictions
on chemical products only when they could prove that they were unsafe
to human health or to the environment.
The proposed REACH regulation (click
here to view) would require health and environmental assessments
for more than 30,000 chemicals and substances. It proposes reversing
the burden of proof from the authorities to the companies. In future,
the idea is that companies would have to provide health and safety
data for each one of these products or substances.
The autumn will be a decisive period for the draft
EU chemicals regulation, with the Parliament voting - possibly in
late October - over what has already been described as one of the
biggest lobbying debates within the EU.
A great deal of ammunition has already been used by
both sides - mainly environmental groups insisting on strict controls
and industry demanding more flexible and workable solutions - leading
many to believe a major redraft of the bill to be highly unlikely.
However, there is always some degree of uncertainty with every Parliament
vote and predictions are rife over where each one of the 732 MEPs
will choose to stand.
In Parliament, a head-on confrontation is currently
brewing between the EPP-ED with their German rapporteur Hartmut
Nassauer MEP and the Group of European Socialists - supported by
the Greens and former communists of the GUE. At the heart of the
issues remaining for debate is the SME sector - on which most attention
has been focused in recent months. Those opposing the regulation,
claim REACH would be too costly and burdensome for small
companies who produce chemicals or use them as a crucial part of
their production processes - i.e. downstream users.
The Socialists have a clear advantage, as their representative
- Guido Sacconi MEP (Italy) - is reporting for the Environment
Committee, which was designated as the leading Parliament
Committee on the REACH regulation.
Revealing his strategy before the summer break, Sacconi claims
he put forward proposals that address SMEs' concerns that
REACH would be too costly for small companies and,
eventually, drive them out of business.
His proposals include making data available to SMEs free of charge
13 years after REACH enters into force (instead of 11) and
enabling the Commission to review the directive after six years,
to cater for the lower-volume chemicals still awaiting testing.
Industry, at the time, described Sacconi's proposal as 'a good
start' - but said it did not resolve concerns from bigger producers
of chemicals concerning patent protection. "If companies cannot
protect their production secrets, there is a problem" - according
to a representative of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).
Eight other committees are set to give their opinion on the draft,
but it is clear that the most influential will be the Internal Market
Committee and its rapporteur, Hartmut Nassauer.
The German MEP already made his position clear in May, when he
unveiled proposals to improve the workability of REACH in
a series of amendments that would see companies test chemicals according
to the risks they pose to health and the environment - as opposed
to the volumes imported or produced.
The Greens have criticised Nassauer and the EPP for being the mouthpiece
of the chemicals industry. However, on Nassauer's side will be numbers
- as, with 268 members, the chamber is clearly dominated by the
centre-right EPP-ED Group. By comparison, the Socialists - the second
largest group in the European Parliament - only have 200 members,
while the Greens and GUE having 42 and 41 respectively.
In this context, the position of the 89 liberal-democrat MEPs of
the ALDE Group is likely to be decisive. The opinion from ALDE Rapporteur,
Lena Ek MEP (Sweden), for the Industry Committee, could, therefore,
weigh heavily in the balance. Ek has declared that she favoured
a - "targeted approach, where only chemicals of reasonable concern
In a public statement, ALDE cites the 'justified concerns by
industry about the workability, the costs, the efficiency and the
protection and stimulation of R&D' - but said that protecting
human health and the environment was also important. In the meantime,
there will be no shortage of discussion, with fervent lobbyists
from every side manoeuvering in the broad light of day - and behind
the scenes - in a last-ditch effort to influence the way MEPs will
vote. Such moves started early in July, when environmental campaigners
at Greenpeace claimed Enterprise and Industry Commissioner GŁnter
Verheugen was out to sabotage REACH by effectively limiting
its scope to just 6% of chemicals. However, they were not followed
by other NGOs - such as the WWF - who thought the Greenpeace allegations
merely reflected the usual tensions between the Commission's Enterprise
and Environment Directorates.
For its part, the chemicals industry has continued raising
earlier concerns that REACH would prove too burdensome
on small companies in terms of the resources and expertise
needed to register chemicals.
Commenting on the results of a 'real life' exercise,
jointly held with the Commission and member states on how
REACH would work in practice, CEFIC said the tests
showed that the proposal would not work if it is not amended.
The organisation maintained its submission that registration priority
should be based on the level of danger posed by chemicals, rather
than on volume - saying that this would clearly contribute to a
The European SME association - UEAPME, who also took part in the
tests - said that the tests only confirmed their initial concerns
that smaller companies will be hardest hit by REACH. "From
the outset, it has been clear that the REACH proposal would
have a disproportionately damaging effect on small businesses, not
only manufacturers and importers, but also the large number of downstream
users" - said Guido Lena, UEAPME Director of Environmental
Policy. UEAPME underlines the need to support data sharing among
firms and involve downstream users more actively.
||In a recent interview with EurActiv, the EU Enterprise
and Industry Commissioner GŁnter Verheugen, said he was confident
that discussions on REACH were nearing conclusion - "Let's
try to find workable solutions. I have discussed it very often
with the different groups in the Parliament - together with
the other stakeholders - and I think we are coming closer and
closer to a consensus." After two years of heated debates, Verheugen
views the current situation as already being - "much calmer
than it was, because industry itself produced an impact assessment
that shows clearly that the figures used in the past were -
to say the least - a little bit exaggerated. In terms of costs,
REACH is not 'that monstrum', as it was described.
"In principle, I strongly believe that we need the regulation.
We are living with thousands and thousands of chemical substances
every day and we don't know the effects - I think it's important
to know that."
The schedule of events, necessary for the progression of the REACH
proposal is -
- 4 October 2005: Parliament's Environment Committee vote
on REACH (Rapporteur: Guido Sacconi). Eight other committees
to give opinions only.
- 26 October 2005: Tentative date set for Parliament plenary
vote (the other likely date is 16 November).
- the Commission then retains the right to reject some
EP amendments and submit the text to EU ministers at the Competitiveness
- 28-29 November 2005: Competitiveness Council possible
- First quarter 2006: Possible final approval of REACH
For further information on REACH Click