Meet the secretive EU committee allowing banned chemicals in products

Opinion: An opaque committee rubber stamps bad decisions and gives populists reasons to attack the EU.

This Valentine’s Day, the EU will decide on the potential exposure of over 100,000 European workers to the deadly chemical that made Erin Brockovich famous. A little known committee in Brussels will likely vote through Europe’s biggest ever package of approvals to give industry the right to continue using the supposedly banned substance. That is just for starters. Also on the agenda is a proposal to hide a suspected cancer-causing ingredient used in suncream, toothpaste and other products; an agenda item on letting a ‘dead chemical’ continue polluting plastic; and other weighty items.

So what is this committee? Don’t bother looking on Wikipedia; it has no page. It has a home in the transparency section of the European Commission website, but its national interests and voting patterns could be much more open. The 28 members of the committee coded C34200, but formally known as the REACH Committee, are public servants, typically from national health or environment ministries, who travel to Brussels every couple of months to vote on behalf of their governments on whether to classify, label, blacklist or permit the production Europe’s most dangerous chemicals. Only officials are allowed in the room and what happens in the room stays in the room, by law. ‘Who votes how’ is controversially opaque, though we do get to see the bottom line numbers, for and against. The rules state that a simple majority with 65% of the European population wins. No thanks to all this smoke and mirrors, we have some idea of the trends and characters involved. The Danes and Swedes are seen as progressive players, an enlightened Nordic tag team. The UK, as so often, seems to lead a regressive bloc. Its technical and institutional prowess and industry-friendly ways chill our bones, but warm the hearts of members in Central and Eastern Europe, notably Poland and Slovenia. German and Dutch officials swing both ways. France and Belgium are typically progressive, active and involved. The European Commission rubber stamps the committee’s decisions into the OJ shortly after items are concluded. When a voting majority is unclear, if the media pokes its nose in or for other reasons, a vote can be deferred, sometimes for years. That is fine by industry, which gets to keep using banned ingredients until the matter is settled. One notable winner of delay is an aggressively litigious firm with uncomfortably close ties to the political elite.

The committee has a bad habit of rubber stamping broken proposals that are open to legal challenge, and herein lies our real beef. The EU is only supposed to tolerate a banned substance in very exceptional cases, such as where no safer alternatives exist. Yet the committee has approved every single one of the 172 applications. These arrive from the Commission, which universally approves industry requests. By industry, we mean big old dinosaur players unwilling to evolve, not the keen young start-ups that face a bitter headwind as a result of all these bad decisions and now muttering (more) about moving to China. By Commission, we mean the people at DG Grow, who tend to overrule objections from DG Envi. The Commission officially takes its lead from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), but the agency too often takes a keen interest in the position of DG Grow. The chain of bad decisions starts with flawed decisions by ECHA’s SEAC committee. Its members routinely approve applications without following the letter of the law. Decisions coming from ECHA’s RAC committee are better. The end result is the same: ECHA has universally approved all 362 industry requests to continue using supposedly banned dangerous chemicals. After trying and failing to strangle the REACH regulation at birth, it seems to us that industry is succeeding in maintaining a toxic status quo by stifling the REACH process.

The situation is handicapping the substitution function of REACH and fuelling a creeping but serious public health problem. REACH aimed to knock out 1,400 dangerous chemicals, but over a decade later just 43 are banned, of which 15 are still in use. The UN says we’re suffering a silent pandemic of disease linked to chemical exposure and voters repeatedly tell us they are scared and unhappy. Thankfully, NGOs and an increasingly assertive European Parliament are making headway. Progressive states inside the committee have started rocking the boat. There have been a number of dissenting votes, but as yet never enough to reach a blocking minority. Sweden has even joined a legal action against a committee decision.

But is progress happening fast enough to stop the EU’s record on chemicals blowing up during the European elections later this year? The populists say Brussels is run by big business for big business. This committee could make a start dispelling that by ending the secrecy and allowing voters and companies oversight of what is decided in their name. That would help the more important change that needs to happen: the decisions made. The Committee should course correct an agenda from the Commission and ECHA that is too focused on jobs and growth and not enough on health and environment. It can do this merely by upholding the letter of the law. It has a golden opportunity to do this by rejecting a slew of broken applications on its agenda this week.