Ministers debate role of European Chemicals Agency

A majority of commerce and industry ministers at the EU Competitiveness Council on 6-7 June supported a French proposal to give the new European Chemicals Agency a greater role in evaluating substances and dossiers under the proposed Regulation on the registration, authorisation and evaluation of chemicals (REACH).

France proposed that the Agency be granted responsibility for two areas currently assigned to Member States under the draft Regulation:

  • Dossier evaluation: A check of companies' proposals to carry out tests on substances in order to submit the data required by annexes VII and VIII of the draft Regulation. The primary aim is to avoid unnecessary animal testing. Checking to see that the technical dossiers submitted by companies comply with all requirements is an optional duty.

  • Rolling plans for substance evaluation: Three-year plans to evaluate substances that Member States suspect may pose health or environmental risks. This could result in companies being required to submit additional information.

    France proposes that if this role is given to the Agency, resulting in a common EU rolling plan, the task could be coordinated with Member States by creating a network of national bodies.

    The proposals are in line with industry demands for tasks to be given to a strong centralised Agency to avoid the disparity of national approaches to assessing substances seen during the implementation of other EU legislation.

    But some Member States expressed reservations at the Competitiveness Council that this could hinder their ability to evaluate substances suspected to pose risks. There was an additional worry that transferring these tasks to the Agency would result in a reduction of or lost opportunity to build technical expertise at national level. Some also said that SMEs would find the Agency less accessible than national bodies.

    The role of the Agency is to be discussed in more detail by a working group of Member State experts in July as the UK takes on the EU presidency.

    Ministers also formally signalled that there have now been sufficient impact assessments of the REACH proposal to allow their experts to proceed with negotiations. Chair of the Council Jeannot Krecké said the EU could not afford to wait until it had perfect information. "I think that with 50 impact studies, the time has come for the Council to conclude, to make the necessary political decisions with a view to increasing the feasibility and viability of REACH." He pointed out: "We have rarely, probably never, carried out so many impact studies."

    Ministers emphasised that efforts should be made at all stages to make requirements practicable for SMEs. This follows the conclusions of a joint European Commission-industry impact assessment published in May (ENDS Report 364, pp 42-43 ).

    The statement paves the way for the UK to achieve its aim of forging a political agreement among Member States by the end of its presidency in December.

    Environment Ministers will meet on 24 June when they will be asked for a political steer on how the highest-risk chemicals should be controlled under the "authorisation" process under REACH. The UK has put forward a detailed proposal to tighten the requirements in order to stimulate substitution of such substances as quickly as possible (ENDS Report 363, pp 46-48 ).