Opinion divided on EU precaution paper

Industry "satisfied," parliamentarians and NGOs worried by guidelines for pre-emptive action

The EU's first formal attempt to define the precautionary principle has satisfied the industries most likely to be affected by its implementation and disappointed Green MEPs and environmental groups. Published yesterday, the communication sets out how the European Commission thinks the EU should act to prevent harm to health or environment in the absence of full scientific knowledge of risk (ENDS Daily 2 February).

Jean-Marie Devos of European chemical industry association Cefic told ENDS Daily the paper was "reasonably positive." He was "particularly pleased" that the principle was "part of a structured approach to the analysis of risk" and that it included the obligation for policy makers to do a risk assessment "as complete as possible" before taking action. He added that he was "substantially reassured" that the principle would not be used to ban products by circumventing traditional legislation.

The American chamber of commerce in the EU, representing several of the key firms involved in the controversial business of agricultural biotechnology, said it was "pleased that the Commission had taken heed of most of the arguments" it put forward in a position paper last year (ENDS Daily 15 October 1999).

Meanwhile, members of the European Parliament's Green/EFA group deplored what it called the paper's "wait-and-see" attitude on precaution. "The main tools for implementing...the principle are present...but we still have doubts on whether they are at the right place in the process," MEP Inger Schörling said. The group also called for the burden of proof for overturning bans imposed through the principle to be reversed as a matter of course instead of on a case-by-case basis.

Environmentalists are even more critical of the paper. Axel Singhofen of Greenpeace said the Commission had taken "two steps backward" by including strict requirements for risk assessments, after having taken one step forward by "acknowledging" its current chemicals policy had been stifled by an over-reliance on such assessments. He also criticised the lack of consultation involved in drawing up the paper, and said a requirement for cost-benefit analysis created an in-built bias towards inaction.

Mrs Wallström today defended the requirement, saying it was "very natural" that measures taken on the basis of the principle would have to be cost-effective. Consumer commissioner David Byrne backed her up, saying that the analysis would also involve non-financial considerations and would favour early action in the event of food safety scares.

Follow Up:
See the full text of the precautionary principle communication, in English, German or French. Cefic, tel: +32 2 676 7211; European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Greenpeace EU unit, tel: +32 2 280 1400.

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