While Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is positioning herself for the 2024 EU elections, activists fear that she could water down a reform of the chemicals law REACH in favor of the CDU/CSU.
After a delay of more than a year, the EU Commission is expected to present its long-awaited revision of the REACH regulation for chemicals in the last quarter of 2023. However, that may already be too late.
The REACH regulation was passed in 2006 to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals and a revision has been promised as part of the Commission’s chemicals strategy for sustainability, aiming for a ‘toxic-free environment’.
But activists fear that the end of von der Leyen’s term and next year’s European Parliament elections will result in further delays and a watering down of the proposal.
“This delay is far more significant than ‘just a year,'” said Mariana Goulart, chemicals officer at the European Environment Bureau (EEB), an environmental governing body.
“With European Parliament elections coming up in May 2024, the delay effectively means the end of REACH reform in this legislature and under this Commission,” she told EURACTIV.
Activists’ concerns are largely related to von der Leyen’s German origins and the country’s penchant for the chemical industry, which makes up 10 percent of Germany’s economy.
The war in Ukraine, which drove up gas and electricity prices, hit the German chemical industry hard last year. The camel’s back came in October, when BASF announced it was “permanently” scaling back its operations in Europe, citing rising energy costs and regulatory concerns.
This sparked alarm from the German government, and campaigners fear von der Leyen will avoid rocking the boat further ahead of an election year.
“As von der Leyen is German, there is a concern that her national political ties could influence her decisions at the end of the mandate, especially considering that her own political future depends on her EU mandate being on good terms with hers German colleagues concludes,” says Goulart.
The Union in particular had recently loudly called for a moratorium on new EU requirements so as not to further impede the already overburdened economy.
According to the Commission’s work program for 2023, the REACH revision will only be “focused” – in Brussels this means that it will not be a fundamental revision.
Rather, it should serve “to secure European competitive advantages and innovation by promoting sustainable chemicals, simplifying and streamlining the regulatory process, reducing effort and protecting human health and the environment,” according to the Commission.
For some, like Belgian climate and environment minister Zakia Khattabi, that’s not enough. She calls on the EU Commission to “achieve the goal of a toxic-free environment.”
The regulation has not been revised for almost 20 years, although widely used chemical substances have now been classified as harmful, she wrote in a recent opinion piece published on EURACTIV.
“This is particularly true for certain polymers and for endocrine disruptors such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), for which there are currently no regulations,” Khattabi wrote.
But the reasons for the delay are varied and complex, as chemicals expert Natacha Cingotti explained in an interview with EURACTIV.
“REACH is a big piece of legislation and I think the originally announced timetable for the reform was very, very ambitious” as the regulatory reform “affects multiple actors and has to do with many sectors,” said Cingotti, who works at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a green non-governmental organization, works.
The Commission has been working in parallel on a revised legal framework for the classification, labeling and packaging of chemicals (CLP), which was proposed last December and introduced new hazard classes for endocrine disruptors and other harmful chemicals.
“It was a huge piece of work for the Commission, but also for Member States and stakeholders. So you could expect there to be some congestion,” Cingotti added.
Industry pressure is another reason for the delay. Business officials say the time is not good for a review they fear will increase the regulatory burden on companies at a time of uncertainty amid the Ukraine war and rising energy prices.
Last September, in a position paper, the European People’s Party (EPP) called for a regulatory moratorium to “delay those acts that would unnecessarily increase costs for companies already burdened”, specifically mentioning the REACH regulation.
In their opinion, the cumulative effect of high energy prices, disrupted supply chains and new legislation in the pipeline “can put our businesses and the jobs they provide at risk,” MEPs write. They warn that this “could also mean that business as usual is no longer sustainable.”
The European employers’ association BusinessEurope also expressed concern last year, stating that the REACH revision will further aggravate the situation for value chains, which are already in a “very difficult situation” due to high energy prices and the Ukraine war.
“Of course, the big question is whether this is necessary at this point in time,” said Markus J. Beyrer, Director General of BusinessEurope.
The German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) shared these concerns and stated that unnecessary costs and regulatory burdens had to be avoided in order to maintain the industry’s competitiveness.
“Companies need legal and planning certainty for investments,” wrote the association and warned of additional costs arising from additional information obligations when evaluating chemicals.
However, a faster revision of the legal framework could also benefit the industry by bringing more security for investors, according to Cingotti.
“The longer reform is delayed, the greater the uncertainty about what the future regulatory framework for chemicals will be. And as an investor, you don’t like uncertainty,” she said.
Some European companies agree with her. Last December, a group of companies including Swedish furniture maker Ikea, fashion house H&M and French retailer Decathlon published a letter to the Commission chief expressing their support for the speedy release of an ambitious regulation.
“Our companies are all working hard to eliminate the most harmful chemicals from our products,” they write. “We believe our work can inspire other companies and help them do the same, but we need legislation to drive those processes forward.”
NGOs, meanwhile, fear the European Commission will take sides.
Some fear the overhaul of this extensive set of rules will favor companies due to the influence of industry lobbies and political pressure.
“We are deeply concerned about the role played by the corporate lobby within the mandate of this commission,” Goulart told EURACTIV.
According to her, the Commission has “given in to industry demands” and replaced the health and environmental protection targets with “more industry-friendly targets”.
For now, the Commission reaffirms its commitment to presenting an ambitious REACH revision by the end of 2023 and to accelerate the green transition to tackle the climate crisis while strengthening the EU economy.
“In this context, our determination to work towards a toxic-free environment remains unchanged and the Commission stands by its commitment to review chemicals legislation,” a source told EURACTIV.
The EU Commission is currently finalizing its impact assessment and stakeholder consultations while “working to ensure chemical safety through current regulations,” it said.
This article is originally published on euractiv.de