EU chemicals policy under the next Commission

Stephanie Brochard

The next European Commission will undoubtedly face a busy chemicals agenda. So busy it will only have to pick and choose its issues. But that’s it, it will have to choose, or risk others choosing for it.

Looking at the Juncker Commission’s legacy on chemicals policy, one may remember the controversial discussions around glyphosate, the long-awaited criteria to identify endocrine disruptors, or the many fitness check (REFIT) exercises carried out by the administration.

But these important milestones hide a simple truth, that the Commission has been tip-toeing around a clear vision of its chemicals policy beyond 2020 for five years. One remembers that the endocrine disruptors criteria were long overdue, and that the Commission was first taken to court by a Member State for its failure to act.

Like many other policy areas in Europe, chemicals policy is at a turning point, reaching the sacred milestone of 2020. But unlike energy or climate policies, with a vision for 2030 and now looking at 2050, the future of EU chemicals policy remains at a crossroads.

There is no shortage of issues at stake. The current Commission will leave with its drawers full of assessments and actions for its successor to pick up. To name but a few:

  • The REACH REFIT, quite advanced with detailed conclusions, but where everything remains to be implemented. REACH being the cornerstone of EU’s chemicals policy, taking it forward on issues such as polymer registration, grouping of chemicals and cocktail effects will require real political leadership.
  • The interface between chemicals, products and waste under the Circular Economy Action Plan: this file will likely remain one of the most challenging. Closing the loop on resources raised many complex questions about the interaction between existing pieces of legislation, such as increasing recycling while phasing out hazardous substances.
  • The future of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) will also take shape under the next Commission, and we are likely to see ECHA’s powers increase, however, its financing remains unclear.

As 2020 approaches, the next Commission will not be able to continue avoiding major political choices. Member States have already started laying out key priorities: right after the Environment Council in June, nine of them sent a letter to the Commission to remind it of its promises.

The four issues they mentioned all relate to chemicals in a way or another: the non -toxic environment, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals in the environment and product policy framework.

Does this mean that these countries will dictate the future of EU’s chemicals policy? Strictly speaking no, as they fall quite short of a qualified majority in the Council. However, two factors may depict a more nuanced picture:

  • First, the UK will leave the EU in 2019 and this is where the impact of Brexit can be most significant. The UK does not only bring a pragmatic voice to chemical discussions, it also has a significant voting power: over 12% of EU’s population, which is only a third of what is needed for a blocking minority in the Council. It remains too early to tell how much the UK’s absence will impact decisions on chemicals, but it clearly opens the way for others to step up and lead.
  • Secondly, under EU chemicals policy, Member States have a strong role to play. Not only because environmental policy is a shared competence, but also because they have the right of initiative: any Member State can propose a certain chemical substance to undergo a certain regulatory process. The next Commission will have to make sure to satisfy their demands if it does not want to see a multiplication of national initiatives.

The next Commission will have to set the tone for the future. What will its choices be? It is too early to say as several factors remain in flux. Nothing can yet be said about how the energy, climate and environment portfolios will be arranged in the next College of Commissioners, or how the Commission’s administration will be structured (or not) to limit internal dissensions.

Furthermore, many national elections will be held before May 2019 which leaves scope for surprises.