Theater of Cruelty

Is REACH good enough?

The European Parliament has approved REACH, the new EU chemicals law, but most environmental organizations that have been involved are afraid that REACH will protect both our health and the environment in Europe poorly.


There was great excitement ahead of the November 17 Parliament session. Within two hours, 600 MEPs were to vote on just over 1.000 different amendments to the proposal tabled by the European Commission.

Well-organized business interests have for several years conducted a targeted campaign to weaken REACH as much as possible, and the proposal to the European Commission was therefore far weaker than the proposal it had originally proposed.

The European Parliament's decision weakens the Commission's proposal on important points, but on other points there are some environmental victories.

Worse than the Commission

The parliamentary majority reduced the number of tests for chemicals produced or imported in quantities from 10 to 100 tonnes a year. And for chemicals in quantities between one and 10 tonnes, users – and consumers – receive far less information than what the European Commission proposed.

These weaknesses were adopted because the Social Democrats agreed with the right side (the Conservatives in the EPP and the Liberals in the ALDE) to save the chemical industry from spending.

There are over 17.000 chemicals that are released on the market in quantities between one and 10 tonnes per year. The decision in Parliament means that manufacturers and importers do not have to control the health and environmental hazards of 90 per cent of these chemicals.

Food and feed are exempt

The food industry achieved that food and feed were kept outside REACH – and received support from the European Commission for it. The reasoning was two-sided. REACH would have incurred large costs for the industry – at the same time as it claimed that there are already special rules for control of food and feed.

In addition, the food industry was afraid of how consumers would react if food and chemicals came under the same legislation. One can argue that this is how it must be when more and more chemicals end up in our food in the form of artificial additives. But packaging and packaging are still part of REACH, the majority in the European Parliament said.

Better than the Commission

A sufficient number of Social Democrats made Parliament improve the Commission's proposal on two points.

The rules for the approval of particularly dangerous substances became stricter than the Commission had proposed. The most important groups are carcinogenic chemicals, endocrine disrupting chemicals, chemicals that damage genetic material or the ability to have healthy children – and chemicals that are not broken down in nature, but which are collected in ever-increasing concentrations up the food chain.

A stricter design was also given to the rules that substitutes must be used if they are an alternative to more dangerous substances.

REACH saved by one vote

A majority adhered to what was a basic principle in REACH: The burden of proof will now lie with manufacturers and importers of chemicals. They are the ones who must guarantee that the goods are not dangerous to health and the environment.

With a majority of one vote (!), Parliament also decided that "dangerous chemicals" must also be registered if they are included in other goods. Had the minority won, much of the meaning of REACH would have evaporated! The European Parliament is so little green after the June 2004 election.

Long until the decision

It is still a long way to the final decision. The REACH proposal will now go first to the European Commission and then to the Council of Ministers. If the top bureaucrats in the Commission and the ministers in the Council of Ministers do not agree with Parliament on all points, and they certainly will not, REACH will have another round through Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers. It may be a final decision in the summer of 2006, but it certainly is not.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimashar has said that the Commission can support most of the amendments adopted by Parliament, including that the chemical content of food, ore and waste does not need to be registered. The business interests are very pleased with this.

No environmental issue for the ministers!

When 25 ministers meet for their governments in the Council of Ministers, REACH is not defined as an environmental issue, but as a business policy issue. Therefore, it is not the environment protection ministers who will meet to discuss REACH. It is the business ministers who will do in what is officially called the Competitiveness Council!

Then it is asked whether the business ministers have brought with them any environmental considerations from home, or whether it is the competitiveness of the EU chemical industry that should weigh heaviest.

The REACH proposal should have been discussed in the Council of Ministers 28-29. November. But Germany has agreed to postpone the treatment since Angela Merkel's government does not take office until November 22. The British government is putting a lot of effort into getting a decision in the Council of Ministers this autumn. In that case, it will be about the only thing the British can boast of having made important decisions in the six months they have held the presidency of the EU.

Going into the EEA

Since REACH for the EU is an industrial and competition policy, all these chemicals legislation must, according to the preconditions, be included in the EEA agreement. Norway has a right of reservation there. It should of course be used if there is a danger that REACH weakens our own freedom of action to determine which chemicals are so dangerous to health and the environment that they must be banned or severely restricted in use.

Now it is the case in REACH that it is the EU Commission that must approve what is called "particularly dangerous substances". But it will happen in cooperation with national authorities.

It is therefore conceivable that Norway can accept REACH as a legal package, if we have guarantees that cooperation with the EU Commission can be set up so that the Norwegian authorities have the right to decide to what extent particularly dangerous individual substances can be imported and used in Norway.

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