Is it me, or is it getting chilly? The EC and endocrine disruptors.

Do the newly negotiated EU rules on endocrine disruptors illustrate regulatory chill /the ‘freezing effect’ of international trade law?

The new European Commission proposals on endoctrine disruptors are, of course’ ‘science based’. It has been reported (EurActiv, 12 December 2016 and last consulted by me on 13 December) that publication of the proposals was followed by a closed door meeting (minutes of which were released only after a freedom of information request) between the EC and a select number of countries (US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay on 13 July this year). Discussion centered around the potential WTO incompatibility of parts of the EC proposal, particularly those surrounding the tolerance levels for endocrine disruptors present in imported substances (food and feed in particularly). The EC reportedly are prepared to replace “negligible exposure” with “negligible risk from exposure”. The EC defend the latter, arguing it might even ban more, rather than less imported substances: for even if there is only negligible exposure, that exposure may still be a risk. Opponents suggest that the insertion of a risk approach has sacrified precaution on the altar of science.

A few comments.

Firstly, the report (and potentially even the EC itself) repeats the misleading assertion that the debate concerns either science or precaution. Precaution is NOT unscientific. The very trigger of the precautionary approach is science.

Next, the case is reported at a time a lot of people are getting jittery about the regulatory co-operation mechanisms in free trade agreements such as CETA and TTIP. The meeting and the subsequent EC reaction to our trading partners’ comments, would then represent an example of the ‘freezing effect’ in international trade: with our trading partners flying the flag of WTO incompatibility, the EU would then have caved in to threats of litigation in Geneva. Yet in reality WTO input by fellow WTO Members is at least as old as the WTO itself, indeed it predates it. The 1978 Tokyo Standards Code already obliged the then GATT Contracting Parties to notify their draft standards to the GATT Secretariat. The very point of notification and transparency is that the issues raised are being discussed and may indeed lead to the draft standard being adopted. Changes made to REACH, to name but one example, reflected concerns of fellow WTO Members and REACH can hardly be said to pander to industry’s demands.

However there needs to be one core appreciation in this process: just as notification serves transparency (anyone can consult the TBT notification gateway to review draft measures that have been notified), so too should the process of review after reception of the comments, be conducted in a transparent manner. This clearly has not happened here. By conducting these meetings in private, and by refusing to release the minutes until prompted to do so, EC services have given the impression that there is more than meets the eye. In times where even CETA has not yet been ratified, that is most definitely the wrong approach.

Geert.

 

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