News of the row emerged through several reports that officials in the office of Commission President Jacques Delors have been questioning whether the eco-labelling scheme should ever have been attempted at EC level. The feeling has been stoked by complaints from DGIII, the Industry Directorate, that the eco-labelling criteria being drawn up under the scheme have not been scientific and have failed to take industry's views into account. Prolonged arguments with industry have resulted in the publication of criteria for just two product groups, washing machines and dishwashers, since the scheme's inception.
Observers of the eco-labelling scene have been aware of these complaints for some time, but feel that these may have come to a head following disagreements over the latest sets of criteria to be announced - for tissue paper and soil improvers (ENDS Report 231, pp 28-29 ).
The Commission has also come under pressure from US and Brazilian paper producers, who have complained that the scheme poses unfair trade restrictions because the criteria-setting process is not transparent to foreign producers.
ENDS understands from Commission sources that a fundamental discussion about its role in the scheme is under way. News of the outcome is expected to emerge when officials return from the summer break early in September.
The UK Ecolabelling Board (UKEB) says that it knows no more about the debate in Brussels than it has seen reported in the press, but that it is possible that the Commission is considering bringing forward an overall review of the scheme, originally scheduled for 1997. The UKEB would not support such a move, given that new guidelines intended to improve the scheme's efficiency are only just being drawn up. These should be given a chance to work, it argues.
Two consultancies were commissioned last year to assess several problem areas (ENDS Report 227, p 26 ). A report on new procedural guidelines has already emerged from this process, and another two, on life-cycle assessment methodologies and policy decision-making, are in their final draft and were due to be released in September. Whether this will now happen is uncertain.
One press report quotes an official in Jacques Delors' office as saying: "If subsidiarity is right then this [scheme] is one of the first things we should scrap." The official felt that the scheme was best left to private business, national eco-labelling bodies or possibly the new European Environmental Agency.