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The reach of lobbying

05-Dec-2005

The oft-said adage that there are two things people don't want to see being made - sausage and legislation - falls apart at the doors of the EU's parliament.

Those doors need kicking down and the process exposed, or the EU's citizens will increasingly come to feel that their institutions have been hijacked by industry.

This may be an unexpected message as a comment from an industry publication - but it is a fool's game to win a battle by making consumers into the losers. Such a strategy is neither good for the credibility of the bloc's MEPs nor for industry.

 

If industry truly wishes to win it must demonstrate that consumers are not suffering as a result of any reduction in the regulation. And that means more transparency.

 

This need was demonstrated by the success of the intense lobbying efforts that went on behind the scenes over proposed legislation regulating chemicals.

 

The resulting whittling down of the law by MEPs in favour of industry left a bad taste in most people's mouths. The legislation, known as Reach, was passed last month after MEPs submitted about 1,000 amendments. In particular the food industry successfully lobbied to get itself exempted from the main thrust of Reach.

 

Reach stands for the the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals.

 

When originally submitted by the European Commission Reach had noble goals in mind. It was intended to protect consumers and save on health costs related to the use of toxic chemicals in the bloc.

 

MEPs last month approved Reach by 407 votes in favour, 155 against and 41 abstentions, leaving a lot of questions about why that noble aim mainly ended up on the cutting floor.

 

Jonas Sjostedt, a Socialist member, said to one newspaper that their members voted for the legislation because "a weak Reach is better than no Reach at all". He said the proposal "was radically weakened" and his party voted in favour "without enthusiasm".

 

Other members of the Socialist party pointed to the "unbelievable pressure" on parliament that came from large industries.

 

The original legislation would have required industry to conduct their own a safety assessments of 30,000 of the estimated 100,000 chemical substances in use throughout the bloc.

 

While it still puts the onus on industry to ensure their products are safe for human health and for the environment, the resulting vote severely cut the number of chemicals they would have to test.

 

It also excluded a number of sectors, including the food industry, and reduced the amount of scientific data companies would have to provide in making their safety tests.

 

Consumer groups claim that the new Reach has been so weakened that many of the most problematic substances will not face a proper in-depth assessment. They and others are also raising questions about businesses' influence on the elected body.

 

No doubt business' lobbying efforts were more effective due to parliament's slight shift to the right and to a more pro-business stance since the June 2004 elections. The fact that 60 per cent of MEPs were elected for the first time, and were new to the wine-and-dine circuit, probably helped tip the balance.

 

Even the European Commission seems to have gone along with the mass stampede away from REACH's original intent. Stavros Dimas, the member of the Commission responsible for Environment, said the compromise over the new Reach "strikes a good balance".

 

This is a remarkable statement since the Commission's own figures indicated that the old Reach would have had an overall economic impact of around €2.3 billion over 11 years but would have resulted in €3.5 billion of savings in health costs related to chemical use.

 

That makes for a net benefit of €1.2 billion for Europe and Europeans.

 

No wonder a group of 50 European NGOs has joined together to urge the Commission to "curb the excessive influence of corporate lobby groups" over the EU's institutions. They want the Commission to tighten up transparency requirements.

 

According to the group's figures about 15,000 full-time lobbyists currently operate in Brussels, playing "a powerful and increasingly undemocratic role in the EU political process".

 

These lobby groups range from the powerful Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, a front group for the chemicals industry, to the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA).

 

The group wants the Commission to establish a law along the lines of the US' 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act. After what occurred in the run up to the EU's passage of Reach their calls need to be heeded.

 

Any exposure of the sausage making process will help build confidence in the EU's legislative process, which has been sorely damaged of late.