Few seem to grasp the consequences of the EU's proposed chemicals policy, also known as REACH, due to its sheer complexity and overwhelming ambition. But there are signs that EU officials and politicians have finally woken up to the fact that the legislation will end up doing far more harm than good. The proposal would require all enterprises using a chemical exceeding one ton in volume to have it registered and evaluated. This process is bureaucratic, cumbersome, expensive and harmful for small & medium sized enterprises.
Recently, two of the European Parliament's most important committees -- Industry, Research and Energy; and Internal Market and Consumer Protection -- proposed increasing the volumes of the chemicals that would require registration and evaluation from one ton to ten tons. This would drastically reduce REACH's scope; of the 30,000 substances originally included only 10,000 would remain subject to the policy. In total only 10 per cent of all chemicals in circulation would be included, out of the 100,000 originally planned.
For a long time the process stalled after the committees' proposal, subject to intense lobbying from industry and environmental activists. Then, last month the European Commission environment chief Stavros Dimas got into the act. At a negotiation meeting the Commission made an "unofficial proposal" to support the Parliament committees' position. It is very unusual for the Commission to enter the political process in this fashion. Normally the Commission makes a proposal and then waits for the Parliament to treat the issue in its committees and then in plenary session. But the issue of reforming REACH has not been addressed yet in the committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and was not supposed to reach a vote in parliament until the 17th of November.
No doubt the long, slow process of drafting REACH tested the patience and credibility of European politicians. It is also started to dawn on Brussels that REACH would be a serious blow to the Lisbon Agenda. It became clear in parliamentary hearings before the summer that nobody, neither those supporting or opposing REACH, were happy with the discussed compromise. With the modifications the proposal might pass.
It is fitting that one of the main architects behind the new proposal is Lena Ek, MEP for the Swedish Center Party, and responsible for REACH issues in the committee for industry. The Center Party has usually been a supporter of environmentalist ideas, due to their agrarian roots. Sweden has been one of the most vociferous supporters of REACH, and the proposal most certainly sprung from their notion that getting the regulation in place is a matter of urgency. Still, the new proposal has been heavily criticized by environmentalists and Sweden's environment minister, Lena Sommestad.
Lena Ek's proposal may move REACH forward to acceptance, and certainly its reduced scope is a better proposal for European companies and consumers.
But unfortunately the basic flaw of REACH still remains in the new proposal -- that it is based on the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is often misused as a tool to stifle development or gain political control over it rather than the common sense approach of being careful with things we have reason to suspect are dangerous. Quite often potential benefits outweigh even fairly clear risks, and precautions should not be applied to cripple development. But when the risks are automatically given primacy, as in even the modified REACH, then there is no room for constructive analysis.
The political battle in Brussels is most certainly not over yet, and winning the war is vital for Europe's future.