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EU quietly shelves REACH regulation on toxic chemicals

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The European Commission this week appeared to indefinitely shelve a promised revision of its REACH regulation on chemical safety, refusing to give Parliament a clear indication of when the proposal will be tabled, if at all.

The REACH review was originally promised in 2020 as part of the Commission’s chemicals strategy for sustainability, which aims for “a toxic-free environment”.

It has since been delayed until the end of 2023, amid mounting difficulties faced by the sector and an announcement by German chemical giant BASF that it would “permanently” scale back its operations in Europe due to rising energy costs and concerns over green regulations.

According to conservative lawmakers in the European Parliament, the review has now been permanently shelved.

“We are happy that there is no date for REACH,” said Peter Liese, a German lawmaker from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which fought – and lost – a high-profile battle this year in Parliament to kill the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law.

“We can interpret this that REACH will not be presented before the end of this mandate,” he told journalists at a media briefing on Wednesday (4 October).

Liese was speaking hours before a European Parliament vote that confirmed the appointment of Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic as the Commission’s new vice-president in charge of overseeing the EU’s environmental policies.

In a Parliament hearing earlier on Tuesday, Sefcovic came under intense pressure from Green and left-wing lawmakers who asked him to provide a “concrete timeline” in writing for the adoption of key pending Green Deal legislative files before they could vote to approve him.

However, Sefcovic was evasive when it came to the REACH review, saying in his written responses that “preparations will continue” on the proposal. “The work on REACH is ongoing,” he told lawmakers earlier on Tuesday, saying the Commission was carefully examining all the different aspects of the review and would table its proposal “when it’s ready”.

The REACH revision is a sensitive topic for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who faces accusations by campaigners of seeking to win the favours of conservative politicians in Germany by delaying the EU’s chemicals policy review.

The difficulties faced by the chemical sector have 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 the European elections in June.

Asked by Euractiv, the European Commission declined to confirm whether REACH was now officially off the table or not.

“We currently have nothing to add to the explanations provided by Vice-President Sefcovic in his replies, both oral and written,” said Jahnz Adalbert, the Commission’s environment spokesperson.

No proposal at all is “even better”, says EPP

The postponement of the REACH revision was welcomed by the EPP’s Peter Liese who said it “makes it easier to approve Mr Sefcovic”, a socialist, in his new role as Green Deal czar.

“When you read the written answers carefully, it is almost clear that there will not be REACH – no chemical legislation this year, that’s for sure. And my interpretation is also not before the end of the [Commission’s] term,” Liese said.

“Even better is no proposal at all,” Liese added when asked whether the REACH revision could still be tabled next year. “Postponing is possible but that doesn’t help,” he said.

In a letter to the Commission last year, the EU’s chemical industry council (CEFIC) warned about the impact of rising energy prices on the sector, saying the energy crisis resulting from the Ukraine war was heavily disrupting energy-intensive industries such as the chemical industry.

Liese backed the chemical industry’s assessment, saying the top political priority at the moment was to fight climate change and ensure industries in Europe have access to affordable clean energy.

“We need to prioritise climate and some chemicals are important to do the transition. If we put a big question mark on all the chemicals, then the transition will be more difficult,” he warned.

Chemicals such as lubricants and coatings are widely used in wind turbines to improve performance, make blades more resistant and protect them from corrosion. They are also commonplace in solar panels.

Liese said the EPP was committed to the EU’s decarbonisation goals but added that not all green objectives could be met at the same time. “And there is sometimes a trade-off between climate and biodiversity, climate and chemicals, and other issues,” he explained.

Socialists still hopeful, campaigners angry

The socialists in the European Parliament do not share the same view, though, saying the decision about REACH is not definitive and lies within the remit of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is EPP-affiliated.

“We are still expecting REACH to be put forward within this mandate,” said Tiemo Wolken, a German MEP who spoke on behalf of the socialist group at the Sefcovic hearing. “Of course, we can accept that more work needs to be done, but this should be finalised by the end of this year and we expect to see the Commission come forward with a proposal in Q1/2024,” he told Euractiv.

But environmental activists seem to have lost hope, telling Euractiv they are worried about the Commission’s lack of commitment to REACH.

“The new Green Deal chief has cheated the European citizens today by turning a blind eye to chemical pollution and favouring toxic industry interests over citizens,” said Tatiana Santos, head of chemical policy at the European Environmental Bureau, a green umbrella group.

“Every day of delay means people and the planet being poisoned without consent,” she told Euractiv in an emailed statement.

Sefcovic was until now vice-president in charge of interinstitutional relations at the Commission and was nominated earlier this year to replace outgoing Green Deal czar Frans Timmermans who quit his job in August to run for the Dutch national elections.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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