Chemicals cheerleader: how DG Grow puts industry above public interest regulation

Newspapers are reporting a war of words within the European Commission, with the industry department, DG GROW, threatening “to gut” the European Green Deal. Vicky Cann of Corporate Europe Observatory explains.

A roadmap for how the EU is to regulate toxic chemicals has been leaked, and the document reveals in stark detail the role DG Grow is playing in mirroring chemical industry lobbying points. DG Grow’s sidelining of the public interest is a pattern, from its input on questions of affordable medicines to the Dieselgate scandal. It’s time for root and branch reform in the European Commission to stop the corporate capture of DG Grow.

Today’s leaked draft Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability shows DG Grow, the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship, and SMEs, working to protect the interests of the chemical industry at the expense of health and environmental standards. It is time to end the corporate capture of DG Grow.

The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) is part of the Commission’s Green Deal. Its stated aim is to “help to protect citizens and the environment better against hazardous chemicals and encourage innovation for the development of safe and sustainable alternatives” and it will review how the EU regulates chemicals.

The leaked CSS reveals an original DG Environment draft with many positive aspects. For example it proposes to speed up action to ban the most toxic chemicals, including endocrine disruptors, and to introduce a “Toxic-Free Hierarchy” to guide decision-making so as to avoid, minimise, and control damaging chemicals. DG Environment has hailed the forthcoming strategy as a “game changer” and the most significant development on EU chemicals policy since the REACH regulation 15 years ago.

However, DG Grow’s comments on the draft seek to gut many of the progressive elements, minimise the health and environmental risks of chemicals, and parrot the demands and positions of the chemical industry (including CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council). In particular DG Grow officials demand that at least parts of the draft “undergo a significant overhaul”. They reflect the industry concern that the DG Environment draft as it stands would disrupt their sales of toxic chemicals, and the document provides clear evidence of DG Grow championing the views of industry over the public interest. In a mass of comments, deletions, and additions DG Grow officials want the CSS to be seen in the frame of “industrial competiveness [sic]” (ie. profits over precaution) and argue for an approach based on the flawed ‘Better Regulation’ concept, a corporate-friendly deregulatory drive.

This points to a much wider problem in DG Grow. The Commission and its DGs should act as a regulator but, especially when DG Grow is in the picture, it acts more like a cheerleader for industry. A look at the declared lobby meetings held by the DG Grow commissioners (previously Elżbieta Bieńkowska and now Thierry Breton) and their cabinets shows that business interests are granted eight times the lobby access given to NGOs and trade unions. And there are many recent examples when DG Grow has chosen to sacrifice health, social, or environmental concerns on the altars of ‘innovation’, ‘competitiveness’, and corporate profits. There are also cases with parallels to the CSS where DG Grow has tried to marginalise DG Environment or other DGs, or where DG Grow’s proposals mirror the demands of industry. 

Across the Commission: European Green Deal

The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) will play a key role in the European Green Deal, the Von der Leyen Commission’s flagship policy which is supposed to tackle the environmental climate crises. If industry succeeds in watering down and manipulating the CSS to its own ends, what about the rest of the Green Deal being developed elsewhere in the Commission? Recent analysis by Corporate Europe Observatory shows a worrying pattern. In the first 100 days after the launch of the European Green Deal on 11 December 2019 there was a flurry of lobbying activity. Key Commissioners such as Von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans, and high-level Commission staff in charge of the Deal met 151 times with business interest representatives, and only 29 times with public interest representatives. Industry clearly has the European Green Deal in its sights, inside and outside of DG Grow.


The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) recently wrote to Commission President Von der Leyen to raise the issue of corporate influence in the Commission and related issues, but the institution’s response rejected the accusation and gave little hope that this will be a priority focus. But real issues are at stake.

There is a battle being waged within and without the Commission over the direction and detail of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. On one side are civil society and MEPs who have called for an approach which prioritises health and the environment, and who can take some encouragement from DG Environment’s CSS. On the other side is industry, apparently backed by its allies in DG Grow, who are raising the alarm at a draft of the strategy which could seriously undermine the chemical industry’s sales of toxic chemicals.

If the CSS, the European Green Deal, and other Commission policies are to have credibility, the Commission needs to deliver urgent root and branch reform to prevent corporate capture of its policy-making.

This article appears in full here.

Photo credit: Tom Blackwell