EU precautionary principle paper finally out

Communication largely confirms expectations; Commission stresses proposals not definitive

The European Commission today unveiled a key communication setting out guidelines for using the precautionary principle to protect human health and the environment. The final text of the hotly contested document confirms most expectations (ENDS Daily 26 January), but the Commission stresses that its interpretation is not definitive. A consultation process is now planned on the basis of the published communication. Ultimately, the Commission says, its definition of the principle will have to be "fleshed out" by judgements in the European Court of Justice.

ENDS Daily offers a summary of the communication today and will report on reactions to this important document in tomorrow's issue:

The Commission distinguishes between factors "triggering" a political decision on whether or not to take action, and measures that should be taken if action is opted for. To trigger action there must be "potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process" which have been identified but for which a "scientific evaluation...makes it impossible to determine with sufficient certainty the risk in question."

However, the Commission says this "does not mean that measures always have to be adopted." The appropriate response is an "eminently political decision" which depends on an evaluation of the "risk level that is acceptable to...society."

Assessment of risk should "start with a scientific evaluation, as complete as possible, and, where possible, identifying at each stage the degree of scientific uncertainty". An assessment of the "potential consequences of inaction and of the uncertainties" should then trigger action. "All interested parties should be involved to the fullest extent possible."

The action taken should be "proportional to the desired level of protection" and "must not aim at zero-risk," the document continues. Measures should not discriminate by treating comparable situations differently or different situations in the same way. They should also be "consistent with measures adopted in similar circumstances".

Policymakers must also decide by comparing "the most likely positive or negative consequences of the envisaged action and those of inaction in terms of overall cost to the the long and short-term". The comparison should include not only an economic analysis, but also "those concerning efficacy and the socio-economic impact of the various options". In addition, decision-makers "may be guided by non-economic considerations".

Finally, measures taken "shall be maintained as long as the scientific data remain incomplete, imprecise or inconclusive and as long as the risk is considered too high to be imposed on society". Responsibility for providing data leading to a reversal of the decision "must in certain cases" lie with the producer or importers of a contentious product. However, the Commission says this obligation "cannot be systematically entertained as a general principle."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111. The communication was not available on the internet by ENDS Daily's publication deadline today.

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