MEMBER STATE APPROVAL OF CRITERIA FOR ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS - WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Another chapter in the ‘endocrine disruptors’ saga was added last Tuesday, 4 July: after more than a year, the Commission has managed to have Member State experts on board to approve its proposal for criteria under the Plant Protection Products Regulation.

Endocrine disruptors are substances that interfere with the functioning of hormones, with potentially harmful effects on health. Defining scientific criteria is highly complex and has important repercussions.

A lot has already been written on the saga (could they be called scientific criteria? Will they efficiently protect human health and the environment?) to such an extent that the story has also been reported in national media (imagine that!). What a beneficial event for the EU – you may think – for once Brussels would not be pointed to as the city of boring and soulless Eurocrats. Well, how can we put it? The saga has surely had the merit of enlightening citizens on how ‘obscure’ EU comitology procedures work, but stakeholders consider that the Commission has missed the opportunity to deliver efficiently on this important topic.

From the NGOs’ perspective, the criteria are so strict and require too high a burden of proof to be able to identify endocrine disruptors, and thus cannot efficiently protect human health or the environment. From the industry’s perspective, these criteria are fundamentally ‘flawed’, as they do not clearly separate those substances that have the real potential to cause harm from those that do not. 

France, previously the leading country striving for a redraft of both the Plant Protection Products and Biocidal Products criteria, has made an amazing U-turn and finally voted in favour of the criteria last Tuesday. It may be the change of the government, or the new Commission’s commitments (as an EU-wide strategy for toys, cosmetics and food packaging), but Mr Hulot, the newly appointed French Minister of Ecology, has certainly made a point: the adoption of the criteria could not wait any longer.

Indeed, the Commission was expected to deliver on these dangerous substances by 13 December 2013, but it was only following the General Court of the European Union’s 2015 Judgement (Sweden v. Commission) that  it presented its first proposals in June 2016.

The Member State approval could be seen positively, as we cannot afford any further delays in the process of getting these long-awaited criteria in place. Nonetheless, working on this saga has made us wonder whether the Commission did not use its noncompliance-delay as a lever to push Member States to vote on its proposal.

While we have to recognise that the Commission has amended its proposals several times and made new commitments (e.g., within seven years from the date of application of the text, the Commission would present an assessment of the experience gained from the application of the same criteria), these amendments have only slightly changed its first proposals without making any fundamental revision to its nature. In conclusion, despite the countless position papers and studies raising concerns from industry, NGOs and the scientific community, the Commission has always maintained its approach.

We think that its desireto have its criteria adopted can be seen in two instances. Firstly, in December 2016, the Commission took the decision to split the Plant Protection Products criteria in two – probably in an attempt to approve a first part as soon as possible, and to submit to Member State experts the remaining derogation for growth in the near future. Secondly, the Commission clearly stated in May that it did not intend to amend the proposal any further – i.e. either Member States approved the current text or the Commission would need to submit a proposal for a Council Regulation to the Council. We know how the story ended. 

Although summer is coming, and MEPs and Council experts are already planning their beach holidays, the regulatory procedure with scrutiny (RPS) admits no excuses: the European Parliament and the Council have now until early October to raise any objections. Therefore, eyes must now turn to the two co-legislators. In particular, the European Parliament may raise an objection on the ground that the Commission has exceeded its powers.

Until this moment, EPP MEPs have seemed to be supportive of the Commission’s proposal, while the Greens massively raised concerns over the Member State approval. The remaining parliamentary groups preferred not to take a clear position. 

Let’s hope the summer break helps co-legislators understand how to solve this dilemma.