EU precautionary principle paper postponed

Leaked draft calls for strict limits on precautionary action while stressing its "political" nature

A long awaited EU communication setting out rules for applying the precautionary principle to protect the environment or health will now be launched next week, ENDS Daily has learned. The controversial paper should have been published today, but has been delayed because EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström is in Montreal attending negotiations on the draft UN biosafety protocol.

However, a leaked draft of the paper confirms that the European Commission's is likely to thoroughly anger EU environmental groups by setting powerful limits on precautionary action to restrict hazardous substances or processes. Greenpeace recently attacked the Commission, correctly predicting key elements contained in the draft (ENDS Daily 14 January). It is possible that further changes have been made in the last few weeks, however.

In particular, the draft paper says that use of the precautionary principle should be based on risk assessment. NGOs, as well as some EU governments say this would make a nonsense of the principle, which should instead be seen as a "logic supplement" to risk assessment (ENDS Daily 3 November 1999).

The paper also concludes that precautionary action should be seen as temporary, pending further scientific studies, while rejecting the idea of setting a fixed period before precautionary actions are reviewed and proposing that manufacturers should pay for any extra research. A third safeguard before precautionary action is taken, the Commission suggests, should be a cost-benefit analysis.

In addition, the paper rejects the idea of systematically reversing the "burden of proof," in which case manufacturers would have to prove that products were safe rather than others having to prove a risk.

Some other elements of the draft paper hint at a potentially stronger role for precaution in EU environment and health policies. It stresses that decisions to take precautionary action are political, confirming the position recently taken by the Commission in banning phthalate softeners from certain PVC baby toys, in which commissioners effectively over-ruled their chief scientific advisor (ENDS Daily 26 November 1999).

The paper also suggests that precautionary action could be justified even when only a small minority of scientific opinion believes that there is a risk, as long as "the credibility and reputation of this fraction are recognised at international level". And it proposes that decisions on whether to take precautionary action should take into account not only short-term, immediate risks, but also long-term implications for sustainable development.

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