MEP calls for united EU front on precaution

Rapporteur endorses Commission definition of controversial risk management principle

The rapporteur MEP charged with drawing up the European Parliament's interpretation of the precautionary principle has endorsed a European Commission attempt to define the concept and called for a unified EU position with "legal stability" to take to international fora.

Addressing the parliament's environment committee yesterday, French socialist Béatrice Patrie said MEPs should "give the Commission a clear mandate of what the precautionary principle means so that it can go into international bodies and defend particular in the WTO." She called on EU governments to "clarify" their position on the principle and to adopt a joint declaration by the end of the year.

Though the precautionary approach to environmental, health and consumer policymaking has been used within the EU for several years, the "principle" has achieved attention only recently in connection with food safety scares and proposals to ban phthalates in baby products. The Commission's initial codification of it has raised hackles in the USA, where officials see it as a potential European tool for market protection in areas such as GM crops (ENDS Daily 24 March).

In her report, Ms Patrie suggests virtually no changes to guidelines for invoking the principle adopted by the Commission earlier this year (ENDS Daily 2 February). These advocate a clear division of responsibilities within authorities between risk assessment and risk management tasks. They also say decisions on who is responsible for proving a product's safety or danger should be made case-by-case in the absence of prior authorisation procedures.

However, Ms Patrie does argue that the EU's scientific committees should be expanded to be able to tackle risk assessments in more areas than currently. She says risk assessment reports should register the "minority" opinions of dissenting scientists and that manufacturers of products targeted by restriction measures should be consulted early about the risks posed by possible substitutes.

Though generally welcoming Mrs Patrie's report, a number of MEPs warned against its indiscriminate use. "At best it's a useful tool; at worst it could be used to justify political decisions with no [scientific] evidence," UK conservative Robert Goodwill told MEPs. He said potential trade wars could be avoided if fixed time limits were laid down for authorities to justify any precautionary measures they had taken.

Follow Up:
European Parliament environment committee, tel: 284 2111, and the Patrie report.

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