Greece Pushes Back European Chemicals Review

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 7, 2003 (ENS) - European environment ministers will not reach a common position on a planned overhaul of European chemicals policy until the end of the year, it has emerged. The review was originally supposed to be finalized by the end of last year. It is likely to be the most hotly contested EU environmental policy issue of 2003.

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Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou will serve for the next six months as President-in-Office of the European Council. (Photo courtesy Greek Presidency)
In a Joint Council of Ministers' work program for 2003, the Greek and Italian governments, which will chair European Union meetings in the first and second halves of the year respectively, say scrutiny of the issue in the Council is "likely to enter a more active stage" under Rome's stewardship.

The development will disappoint environmentalists already angry at what they see as undue procedural holdups within the European Commission, the EU executive branch, which has still to table its legislative proposals.

These legislative proposals, currently being drafted by the Commission and due to be published in the next few months, will completely overhaul the regulation of chemicals in Europe, based on proposals published in a White Paper in February 2001.

Environmental organizations are aware that there is substantial industry lobbying on this issue, and are concerned that the Commission may publish legislation that does not properly protect public health and the environment, for example by excluding certain groups of chemicals and uses from the new management system, says the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of 134 member organizations in 25 countries.

They are also concerned at potential delays in the legislation’s publication, due to continuing lobbying from pro-chemical industry elements within the Commission for further consultation and extension of an already flawed business impact assessment, the EEB says.

The United States has been attempting to derail EU efforts to protect the public from harmful chemicals, say environmental groups on both continents. A wide range of environmental, public health, and labour groups in the U.S. joined together last November to denounce their government’s efforts to derail proposed reforms underway in the EU. In a letter to President George W. Bush, more than 50 organizations applauded EU efforts to protect against hazardous chemicals and countered Bush administration claims that the legislation would be bad for U.S. business.

Michael Warhurst, WWF’s senior EU toxics program officer, said, "Instead of lobbying to slow environmental progress in Europe, the U.S. should take some lessons from overseas and begin to tackle this global threat."

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British Chrome & Chemicals Plant, Urlay Nook, Eaglescliffe (Photo courtesy Freefoto)
There is some progress on the regulation of harmful chemicals. The European Commission yesterday announced a ban on the use of arsenic in wood preservatives, except for a restricted number of industrial applications. The ban, to be in place by June 30, 2004, will also apply to treated wood.

Arsenic is the latest substance to be added to a list regulated under the EU's 1976 chemicals' marketing and use directive. The Commission proposed the ban in 2001 after scientists recommended tougher restrictions on wood preservatives containing arsenic because of its genotoxic and carcinogenic nature.

Meanwhile, Athens is gunning for a ministerial agreement on the similarly contentious draft environmental liability directive during its presidency term which ends June 30.

The liability issue was virtually sidelined under the outgoing Danish presidency because the European Parliament had not yet delivered its opinion. Members of the European Parliament are now on their way to producing this, and Greece says it "should be able" to reach agreement by June. A second reading would be handled by Italy, which takes the EU Presidency from July 1 to December 31.

Also high on the Greek wish list is a rapid adoption of the European Commission's proposed revision of the European Union bathing water law through a first reading agreement between the Council of Ministers and Parliament.

Athens will also coordinate a Council response to European Commission policy papers on the marine environment and on sustainable development in island regions.

Work on three other items is on the front burner during the next six months - the so-called "intelligent energy" funding program, a cogeneration support framework and expected Commission proposals for energy efficiency of appliances.

Greece says work on these issues must be advanced before heads of government meet in March, to maintain EU commitments made at last year's Johannesburg summit.

The EU's sustainable development strategy will be before the European Council in March when the ministers receive the Commission's second sustainable development progress report. The Council of environment ministers is to draw up "priorities, concrete measures and timetables" for the further implementation of the strategy.

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