Say no to Toxic EU

Will the EU Commission stand firm against toxic lobbying pressure?

A battle has been raging within the European Commission over the upcoming Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) – the biggest chemical reform in 15 years. Officials who want tougher and quicker regulation of chemicals have faced strong opposition from those arguing for a weaker version of the current status quo, known to be slow, ineffective, and full of loopholes. That row is being fuelled by industry bodies, who are actively feeding their allies in the Commission with arguments. Meanwhile new evidence shows that the Commission remains far too relaxed about employing ex-chemical industry insiders. With only two weeks left until the final chemicals strategy is launched, the stakes could not be higher.

Biggest chemicals reform in 15 years

Toxic chemicals are still found across the EU in far too many products, in the environment, and even in our bodies.

The new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), due to be announced on 14 October, will set out the future of chemicals regulation in the EU. A part of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s Green New Deal, it will be the biggest chemicals announcement since the REACH regulation 15 years ago. While REACH and its associated regulations were seen as ground-breaking at the time, over the years they have in fact been slow and ineffective at protecting people and the environment, as this recent satire illustrates. Toxic chemicals are still found across the EU in far too many products, in the environment, and even in our bodies. But recently the Commission has promised to “move towards a toxic-free environment” and tackle “hazardous chemicals”. NGOs, unions, and consumer groups have welcomed the rhetoric and high ambition this implies.

Specifically, the CSS is expected to deliver:

  • Action to tackle endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which the EU has overwhelmingly failed to properly control for years, despite the association between exposure and many serious health conditions

  • New rules to regulate chemical mixtures (when exposure to a range of different chemicals can have unknown ‘cocktail’ consequences)

  • Action to speed-up the regulation of so-called ‘chemicals of concern’

  • Standardisation of chemicals regulation across different products and sectors. Industry favours a risk-based approach for this, using exposure scenarios to estimate the likely risk of harm. By contrast, civil society favours a hazard-based approach because it focuses on the intrinsic hazardous properties of a substance and enables stronger protection of public health.

When DG Environment (the lead Commission department on the CSS) produced a draft which was subsequently leaked earlier this summer, civil society was encouraged by many aspects of it, but industry immediately mobilised against. A further leak in July 2020 showed how DG Grow (the Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, and SMEs) sought to gut many of the progressive elements in DG Environment’s original draft, in line with industry demands, with Grow officials demanding that at least parts of it “undergo a significant overhaul”. DG Grow reflected industry concern that DG Environment’s proposal would disrupt the sales of toxic chemicals and there is clear evidence that officials championed the views of industry over the protection of public health.

Profits or health?

The chemicals industry and its allies in DG Grow often talk about the contribution the sector makes to the EU economy and why it should not be excessively ‘burdened’ with regulation. But there is a wealth of evidence documenting the urgent need to tackle the production, sale, and use of toxic chemicals in the EU.

The World Health Organisation has reported that 1.6 million lives were lost worldwide in 2016 due to exposures to certain chemicals around the world. Two thirds of chemicals produced in the EU are hazardous to human health and one third are hazardous to the environment. Research has shown that exposure to EDCs in Europe led to healthcare costs of over €160 billion annually - this is likely to be a conservative estimate. Meanwhile, one specific and notable sub-group of EDCs (per and polyfluoroalkylsubstances or PFAS) which are associated with damage to the thyroid gland and immune system, have been linked to annual health-related costs of exposure of €52-84 billion across the European Economic Area.

Thus while the chemical industry may constantly refer to its contribution to the EU economy, this must always be seen in the light of the very real and significant health, environmental, and economic consequences of these products.

Industry allies lobby DG Grow

As previously documented by Corporate Europe Observatory, DG Grow is far too close to industry interests, including in areas such as vehicle emissions, pharmaceuticals, and rules for services. This also applies to the chemicals sector.

A response from DG Grow to an access to documents request shows that Grow held nine lobby meetings (including conference calls) on the CSS between January and July 2020. SidenoteIt is quite surprising that the Commission has not reported more lobbying on the CSS to the access to document requests tabled by Corporate Europe Observatory in July 2020 when compared with, for instance, the furious lobbying that took place at the time of REACH, or the 424 responses that DG Environment received to its consultation on the CSS. There are several possible explanations for this, including the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is also possible that lobbying has occurred on the many component elements of the CSS and, disappointingly, this lobbying has not been included in Commission responses to our original requests. If this is the case, the lobbying documented here may only be the tip of the iceberg. Seven of these were with industry, including three with CEFIC (the European Chemical Industry Council), one of Brussels’ biggest lobbies. Over that period DG Grow held only two meetings with civil society. Minutes of most of these meetings have been released.

The notes from a meeting between DG Grow officials and CEFIC in June 2020 indicate industry’s preference for sticking with the status quo on the regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals.

The notes from a meeting between DG Grow officials and CEFIC in June 2020 indicate industry’s preference for sticking with the status quo on the regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals. In a further meeting in July 2020, CEFIC expressed a fear that DG Environment’s proposed approach to regulating chemical mixtures would “lack a scientific basis” and could “lead to a reduction in the number of substances allowed to be used in formulations”. In both meetings, CEFIC repeatedly stressed the need to introduce Risk Management Option Analysis (RMOA) claiming that it would lead to “increased transparency and predictability” in the regulation of chemicals. Such an approach would be strongly in line with the Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’ agenda (often code for lighter regulation) and would slow down the regulation of dangerous chemicals. In another meeting with Grow’s new Director-General Kerstin Jorna in June 2020, CEFIC advocated that the CSS should “be a strategy for the future of chemicals” and stressed that “industry is part of the solution and not the problem”.

CEFIC is one of the biggest chemical industry lobby groups in Brussels and coordinates core messages with other industry players. It mobilised quickly against DG Environment’s leaked proposal via a letter signed by 18 other trade associations. This letter pleaded against “a full re-opening of REACH” and objected to a “root and branch reform and complete overhaul of the European regulatory framework”.

Industry has objected to a “root and branch reform and complete overhaul of the European regulatory framework”

The leaked comments of DG Grow on DG Environment’s draft reflect many of CEFIC’s demands. Grow argued that the draft “still [has] a significant imbalance in presenting the benefits of chemicals vs. their negative effects”. It wishes to blunt DG Environment’s ambition by demanding that the language used in the CSS “should be less definitive and committing” and instead “replaced with words referring to assessing, exploring etc.” It further queries DG Environment’s approach on both mixtures and EDCs, and also suggests that it “formalize and enhance the RMOA (Risk Management Options Analysis’) process” – just as CEFIC demands.

Dangerous Chemicals by Tom Blackwell

Another active industry lobby group, which signed the previously mentioned chemicals industry letter, is A.I.S.E. (the Association Internationale de la Savonnerie, de la Détergence et des Produits d'Entretien – which represents the makers of cleaning products). Like many other trade associations, its lobbying emphasis supports voluntary initiatives rather than binding regulation, maintaining the EU Single Market (to make it as easy as possible to sell its products), and the so-called innovation principle (which undermines the legally established and more protective Precautionary Principle).

A Commission report of a May 2020 lobby meeting between Grow officials and A.I.S.E. shows the group used standard industry lobby-speak. It called for “a simpler and more coherent system for chemicals risk management, in line with the Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’ agenda”. A.I.S.E. reported that it was “surprised by the language” that DG Environment used in its consultation on the CSS and labeled aspirations for a “toxic free” environment as “misleading”. A.I.S.E. apparently concluded its remarks saying that it “value[s] the good collaboration with DG GROW, and will also continue the dialogue with DG ENV”, giving the distinct impression that A.I.S.E. works much more closely with DG Grow than DG Environment. The report indicates that Grow officials responded inter alia that “the strategy is a rare opportunity to boost the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry” and that DG Grow is “reflecting intensively” on how to promote “sustainable competitiveness” for the industry.

"A.I.S.E. values the good collaboration with DG GROW"

Other industry bodies directly meeting with DG Grow on this issue include Eurometaux, US chemicals company Eastman (accompanied by its lobby firm Burson, Cohn & Wolf), and FuelsEurope and Concawe (which represents the oil industry). Together with CEFIC and A.I.S.E., this handful of industry lobbyists have a combined EU lobby budget of at least €16.5 million per year.

A note of DG Grow’s meeting with Eurometaux again illustrates the shared thinking between industry and these officials. Eurometaux promoted the RMOA approach, and in response the officials confirmed they supported “a risk based approach”. The note also said that officials “stated that the EU industry should remain competitive globally to tackle the challenges of the future”.

DG Grow’s revolving doors problem

Remarkably, according to a document seen by Corporate Europe Observatory, several of the DG Grow officials who commented on DG Environment’s draft previously worked for the chemicals industry.

One official with a five-year history of working on chemicals policy for DG Grow, during which time they had various interactions with the industry, moved to a senior role at detergents lobby group A.I.S.E. in 2016. While at A.I.S.E. this person spoke at a Commission-organised conference on chemicals policy in 2018, and there were significant policy overlaps between their former Commission role and subsequent industry role. Whilst at A.I.S.E., they also took up a leadership role in another active chemical lobby group, the Downstream Users of Chemicals Co-ordination Group (DUCC). This official returned to DG Grow in 2019, to again work on chemicals policy. According to information provided to Corporate Europe Observatory by the Commission, neither the official concerned nor the Commission identified any conflicts of interest, and only minimal, temporary restrictions were put in place when they moved to A.I.S.E.; the Commission has also said that the official’s new unit does not have lobby contacts with A.I.S.E.. Nonetheless, as indicated above, A.I.S.E. has been actively lobbying Grow on the CSS, while DUCC submitted to the public consultation.

Another DG Grow official who made substantial comments on DG Environment’s CSS draft has worked at the Commission for the past six years, but previously spent four years working for Apeiron, a Belgian consultancy which specialises in helping industry to implement EU chemicals legislation including REACH. This person appears to have been responsible for significant portions of DG Grow’s attempt to re-write the CSS. Again, the Commission has told Corporate Europe Observatory that there was no risk of a conflict of interest when this person joined the Commission, and that this official’s unit does not have lobby contacts with Apeiron.

Corporate Europe Observatory has now formally complained about the first of these revolving door cases, arguing that the Commission failed to properly implement its (already weak) conflict of interest rules. This is not about the actions of individual officials but about systemic approaches and attitudes within the Commission. It is deeply worrying that the Commission sees no risk to its public interest mandate when it hires directly from industries with a financial interest in the issues that it regulates.

The clock is ticking for toxic-free Europe

The leak of DG Grow’s comments in July turbo-charged the political debate on the Commission’s upcoming CSS. Three MEP shadow rapporteurs on the CSS swiftly wrote to the lead Commissioner Frans Timmermans and two of his colleagues to insist that the Commission deliver a robust and forward-thinking CSS, as demanded by the European Parliament’s resolution in July 2020. “Should the position of DG GROW be dominant in the final version of the strategy, this would represent a dangerous change of narrative that goes against many ambitions that are strongly promoted in the European Green Deal”, the MEPs argued.

“Should the position of DG GROW be dominant in the final version of the strategy, this would represent a dangerous change of narrative that goes against many ambitions that are strongly promoted in the European Green Deal”

Member states who support a stronger, more ambitious approach to chemicals policy and regulation (the so-called Reach-up group which includes Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, alongside Norway) have made positive proposals for the CSS. The leaked comments of DG Grow argue for the opposite approach. Concerned member states have reportedly met with Timmermans to urge the Commission to hold the stronger DG Environment line.

The outcome of the internal Commission consultation showed that ultimately no DG gave a negative opinion on the DG Environment draft. DG Grow may have been embarrassed into backing-down somewhat after the controversy surrounding its own comments, but it still only gave a ‘conditional positive’ opinion on the draft CSS, meaning that it expects its comments to be fully considered by DG Environment.

It is now just two weeks before the College of Commissioners is due to agree and publish the final Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. That’s two crucial weeks for the Commission to decide if it will prioritise a toxic-free environment and public health, or if it will let industry lobbyists sustain their profits and keep dangerous substances in use across the EU.

Have your say on this vital matter. Say no to a toxic Europe by taking urgent action now.

Say no to Toxic EU

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