EU leaders back precautionary principle

Heads of government urge its adoption throughout the EU, in international treaties

A resolution on the precautionary principle adopted by EU heads of government at their weekend summit in Nice is more progressive than positions taken by either the European Commission or the European Parliament, according to an environmental NGO. Heightened public concerns over genetically modified organisms and BSE could be behind this unusual development, says Christian Hey of coalition group the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The resolution responds to a European Commission communication issued early this year proposing guidelines for using the precautionary principle (ENDS Daily 2 February). The European Parliament looks set to propose few changes to the document (ENDS Daily 23 November), which environmental groups have strongly criticised (ENDS Daily 3 February).

In common with the parliament, EU leaders support many of the Commission's proposed principles for when and how the precautionary principle should be invoked. However, their text introduces several new nuances.

One ongoing battle over the precautionary principle concerns how complete the scientific data needs to be before risk management decisions can be sparked. The Commission stresses that, even though comprehensive risk assessments are not always possible, "all effort" should be made to achieve them.

EU leaders' emphasis is different, stating simply that while scientific assessment should proceed logically from hazard identification to hazard characterisation, appraisal of exposure and risk characterisation, "it may not always be possible to complete every stage systematically" owing to insufficient data or the nature or urgency of the risk.

The Nice resolution also opens up the possibility of greater civil society participation during risk assessments, stressing that these should be "multidisciplinary, independent and transparent" and ensure that "all views are heard". The resolution goes on to stress that any examination of the costs and benefits of action or inaction should take account not only of social and environmental costs, but also of the "public acceptability" of the different options.

EU leaders touch on several other environmental issues in the presidency conclusions to which the precautionary principle resolution is attached. They call for agreement as soon as possible on the European Commission's first "post-Erika packet" of proposals to improve maritime safety. On climate change, they support a plan for informal talks to be held in Oslo before the end of the year. They also "note with interest" ongoing work by sectoral Council of Ministers' formations on integrating environmental considerations, as well as work on strengthening mechanisms for international environmental governance.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111, and Nice summit presidency conclusions with resolution on precautionary principle at annex III. See also Commission precautionary principle communication.

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