March 2. 2024. 3:40

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‘Game over’ for EU’s REACH chemical safety review, campaigners say

With the EU elections looming in spring 2024, campaigners worry that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will seek to please her political base in Germany with a softball approach to chemicals regulation.

After more than a year of delay, the EU executive is expected to table its long-awaited revision of the REACH regulation on chemicals during the last quarter of 2023.

The REACH regulation was adopted in 2006 to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals, and a revision was promised as part of the Commission’s chemicals strategy for sustainability, which aims for “a toxic-free environment”.

But campaigners fear that the end of von der Leyen’s mandate and the European Parliament elections next year will result in further delays and watering down of the proposal.

“This delay is far more significant than ‘just one year’,” said Mariana Goulart, policy officer for chemicals at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green umbrella group.

“With European Parliament elections to take place in May 2024, the delay is effectively ‘game over’ for the REACH reform during this legislature and under this Commission,” she told EURACTIV.

Campaigners’ concerns are chiefly related to von der Leyen’s German origins and the country’s love affair with the chemical industry, which accounts for 10% of its economy.

The German chemical sector took a serious hit last year due to the war in Ukraine, which sent gas and electricity prices through the roof. The final straw came in October, when BASF announced it would “permanently” scale back its operations in Europe, citing rising energy costs and concerns over regulation.

This raised the alarm at the highest level of the German government, and campaigners fear von der Leyen will avoid rocking the boat further ahead of an election year.

“Von der Leyen being German, there is fear that her national political ties may influence her end-of-mandate decisions, especially considering that her own political future may depend on concluding her EU mandate on good terms with her fellow German politicians,” Goulart said.

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REACH review

According to the Commission’s 2023 work programme, the REACH revision will be “targeted”, an EU jargon term meaning that it will not be a root-and-branch overhaul.

Rather, its aim will be to “secure European competitive advantages and innovation by promoting sustainable chemicals, simplifying and streamlining the regulatory process, reducing burden and protecting human health and the environment,” the Commission says.

This is too little for some, like Belgian Climate and Environment Minister Zakia Khattabi, who is calling on the EU executive to “achieve the ambition of a toxic-free environment”.

The regulation has not been revised in almost 20 years, even if widely used chemical substances have since been identified as harmful, she wrote in a recent opinion piece published on EURACTIV.

“This is particularly the case for certain polymers and for endocrine disruptors such as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), for which there are currently no regulations,” Khattabi wrote.

But the reasons for the delay are many and complex, as chemicals expert Natacha Cingotti explained in an interview with EURACTIV.

“REACH is a massive piece of legislation, and I think the original timeline for reform that was announced was very, very ambitious” since the regulatory reform “involves several actors and has to do with lots of sectors,” said Cingotti, who works at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a green NGO.

The Commission has also been working in parallel on a revised regulatory framework on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals (CLP), proposed last December, which introduced new hazard classes for endocrine disruptors and other harmful chemicals.

“That was a massive piece of work for the Commission eventually, and also for member states and stakeholders. So at some point, one could have expected this was going to create a bit of a traffic jam,” Cingotti added.

Industry pressure

Industry pressure is another reason behind the delay, with business players saying the time is not opportune for a review they fear will increase the regulatory burden on companies at a time of uncertainty caused by the Ukraine war and rising energy prices.

Last September, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) asked in a position paper for a regulatory moratorium to “delay those acts that would unnecessarily increase costs for businesses already under strain,” explicitly mentioning the REACH regulation.

In their opinion, the cumulative effect of high energy prices, disrupted supply chains, and new legislation in the pipeline “may endanger our businesses and the jobs they provide,” the wrote, warning it “might also mean that business as usual is no longer sustainable”.

The European employers’ confederation BusinessEurope also expressed worries last year, saying that the REACH revision will further complicate the situation for value chains that are already in a “very difficult situation” due to high energy prices and the Ukraine war.

“Obviously, there is the big question as to whether this is necessary at this moment in time,” said Markus J. Beyrer, director-general of BusinessEurope.

The German chemicals industry association VCI, echoed these concerns, saying unnecessary costs and regulatory burdens must be avoided to preserve the industry’s competitiveness.

“Companies need legal and planning security for investments,” the association wrote, warning of the additional costs arising from additional information requirements in the evaluation process of chemicals.

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Pro-reform voices

However, a faster review of the regulatory framework could also benefit the industry by bringing in more certainty for investors, according to Cingotti.

“The longer you delay the reform, the more uncertainty you keep lingering about what the future framework for regulating chemicals will look like. And if you’re an investor, something that you don’t like is uncertainty,” she said.

Some European companies agree. In December last year, a group of companies including Swedish furniture maker Ikea, fashion store H&M, and French retail group Decathlon published a letter addressed to the Commission chief, expressing their support for the rapid publication of an ambitious regulation.

“Our companies are all working hard to phase out the most harmful chemicals from our products,” they wrote. “We are convinced that our work can inspire and help other companies to do the same, but we need legislation to push these processes further.”

NGOs, meanwhile, worry about the European Commission taking sides

The concern raised by some is that the revision of this massive piece of regulation will favour businesses due to the influence of industry lobbies and political pressure.

“We are deeply concerned about the role that the corporate lobby is having under this Commission’s mandate,” Goulart told EURACTIV. According to her, the Commission has “given in to industry laggards’ demands,” replacing health and environmental protection targets with more “industry-friendly goals”.

The Commission, for the time being, reaffirms its commitment to deliver an ambitious REACH revision by the end of 2023 and accelerate the green transition to tackle the climate crisis while strengthening the EU’s economy.

“In this context, our determination to work towards a toxic-free environment remains unchanged and the Commission stands by our commitment to revise the chemicals legislation,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

The EU executive is currently finalising its impact assessment and consultations with stakeholders while “working to ensure chemical safety through the current rules,” the spokesperson added.