Bulgarian politicians mobilise to defend rose oil against Brussels
An EU draft regulation on essential oils revived fears of yet another ‘European conspiracy’ against a sensitive Bulgarian product – rose oil. Kapital Insights, part of the Dnevnik media group with which EURACTIV Bulgaria is in partnership, has the story.
The planned revision of the regulation for evaluating and authorising chemicals (REACH) has raised concerns in the essential oils sector.
In Bulgaria, these fears evolved into a conspiracy theory, propagated by eurosceptic politicians, that “the Commission wants to ban the Bulgarian rose”.
The reality is much more nuanced, however, and there is no immediate risk for the moment that the iconic Bulgarian product will be banned.
Panic in the essential oils sector followed the announced changes to the REACH regulation, which the European Commission is expected to table towards the end of the year.
Bulgarian manufacturers are worried that their product will be seen as toxic following a revised definition of essential oils as chemical products.
Although not finalised, the amendment has raised concerns about potential market repercussions once the new labelling comes into force.
Bulgarian media recently circulated a statement by the mayor of Kazanlak – a city close to the Rose valley – in which she said that the European Commission is about to ban rose oil.
The topic was then seized upon by social networks, sympathisers and activists from the far-right political party Vazrazhdane to further their short-term political goals.
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The European Commission has declined to commit to moving forward with the delayed revision of the regulation on chemicals on the back of a deepening rift between the socialists and the centre-right groups of the European Parliament over the issue.
A ‘dangerous’ tweak
The proposed changes to EU legislation are part of the Green Deal which, according to the Commission, aims to better protect consumers. However, Brussels could be overreaching itself with this contentious amendment, critics say.
The Commission’s proposal on the REACH reform is expected at the end of 2023. But local authorities, MEPs, and lobby organisations in the Belgian capital are already rolling up their sleeves to protect the interests of the essential oil sector, which affects not only Bulgaria but also Italy, Spain and France.
“According to the expected proposal, essential oils, instead of being considered, as before, as ‘substances’, will now be categorised as ‘mixtures,” Bulgarian MEP Atige Aliyeva-Veli told journalists earlier this week.
She cites this as a threat not only to Bulgaria’s emblematic rose oil, but also to lavender and other products, which are industrially more important.
Aliyeva-Veli claims the new legislation could rebrand these as ‘dangerous’ because they allegedly contain some ingredients that could potentially harm human health under certain conditions.
Essential oils, although indirectly mentioned in the legislation, contain at least 600 molecules, and if among them even one is suspected of causing possible harm to health, they will become subject to this new regulation as “finished products placed on the market”, but also as part of the composition of cosmetic products.
For example, benzyl salicylate is suspected of causing an allergy, while geraniol (in geranium oil) and thymol (in thyme oil) may cause potential endocrine, reproductive or other problems, although this has not been scientifically confirmed.
The proposal does not foresee any ban on their production or imposing a change in their composition. Still, essential oil packages may carry warning pictograms about harmful ingredients.
The industry, both in Bulgaria and abroad, remains concerned and believes that the regulation is flawed.
“Essential oils should be considered as substances and not as compounds or mixtures, as proposed by the European Commission,” said Gergana Andreeva, executive director of the Bulgarian Association Essential Oils, Perfumery and Cosmetics.
According to her, specific molecules in their composition, which could have carcinogenic, reproductive or other side effects, should not be considered separately. Accordingly, no additional requirements such as testing or labelling should be applied to them, she argues.
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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.
‘Nobody is going to buy it’
The direct effects of the introduction of the new measures would be mainly administrative, related to new labelling and related costs.
Varieties of lavender, for example, have varying molecular structures that would require different labels.
“The proposal requires large investments for farmers and businesses. This means that small producers, such as the majority of rose growers, will experience great difficulties in coping,” MEP Aliyeva-Veli said.
While the potential financial impact of new labels remains to be evaluated, the real threat for manufacturers is to be excluded from the cosmetic, herbal and drug markets.
“Nobody is going to buy a perfume that says ‘This product is dangerous’ or one that has a skull on it,” commented Alain Obanel, president of the French committee of essential oils (CIHEF).
Businesses also fear that legislators could be biased and tend to falsely brand a natural product because of a possible – but undefined – risk of one of its many components.
“If we want to specify in the infinitesimal way everything that could theoretically be dangerous to humans, it is possible, but useless. We are less demanding when it comes to bleach,” says Xavier Lepldur, a producer of bio essential oils from France.
For Bulgarian MEP Andrey Novakov, it is too early to sound the alarm, but a qualitative impact assessment is needed. According to him, putting too much regulatory burden on producers could make them uncompetitive against imports from Asia, for example.
The European Commission, meanwhile, assures that nothing has been set in stone yet and that whatever happens, no regulation will enter into force before 2025.
Manufacturers of essential oils, however, have chosen to take the matter into their own hands. A petition in France has already topped 200,000 signatures.
Separately, the Association of Mayors of European Cities is preparing a meeting in the Bulgarian town of Kazanlak on 24 and 25 May, at which their disagreement with the possible changes will be clearly stated.
“We must warn about the economic effect of the ban on essential oils in the health care, food and perfume industry. We are also talking about the culture of the whole of Europe,” says Kazanlak mayor Galina Stoyanova.
After the Commission publishes its draft regulation, it is referred to the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers representing the 27 EU member states. A common text must be agreed by all three before it becomes EU law.
“One thing is certain – any project that coincides with the period before and after the European Parliament elections is at risk,” Novakov says, adding that Bulgarian MEPs will oppose any measure that harms the country’s national interest.