Precaution and standard of proof. The General Court in Agrochem-Maks.

In T‑574/18 Agrochem-Maks the General Court at the end of May upheld the Commission Regulation not extending market authorisation for the active substance oxasulfuron, a pesticide. The EC Regulation noted that EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, had identified a large number of data gaps resulting in the inability to finalise the risk assessment in several areas and that ‘in particular, the available information on oxasulfuron and its metabolites did not allow finalising the assessment of the overall consumer exposure, the groundwater exposure, the risk to aquatic organisms, earthworms, soil macro and microorganisms and non-target terrestrial plants’. Since  ‘it has not been established with respect to one or more representative uses of at least one plant protection product that the approval criteria provided for in Article 4 of Regulation … No 1107/2009 [on plant protection products; see here, GAVC] [were] satisfied’, authorisation was not renewed.

The case at issue is brought by a small Croatian, family-owned company. That is a change from the classic pattern in this kind of cases, with large bio-agricultural industry routinely taking cases to the CJEU in laser-shoot fashion, hoping they might hit the target once or twice.

The General Court extensively outlines the procedure foreseen in the relevant EU laws, thereby identifying the core issue in near all of these cases held under the precautionary principle: the EU courts do not carry out a merits review; rather, they assess whether holes have emerged in the preparation of a decision, which could mean that the Institutions could not reasonably have come to the decision they came to.

That is no different here: at 62: ‘the EU Courts must verify that the relevant procedural rules have been complied with, that the facts admitted by the Commission have been accurately stated and that there has been no manifest error of appraisal or misuse of powers’. At 65, per CJEU T-13/99 Pfizer: ‘a scientific risk assessment carried out as thoroughly as possible on the basis of scientific advice founded on the principles of excellence, transparency and independence is an important procedural guarantee whose purpose is to ensure the scientific objectivity of the measures adopted and preclude any arbitrary measures.’

Specifically for current Regulation: at 66: ‘the burden of proving that the conditions for approval or renewal under Article 4 of Regulation No 1107/2009 are met lies, in principle, with the notifier.’ At 67 per CJEU T-584/13 BASF Agro: ‘it is the person seeking approval who must prove that the conditions of such approval are met in order to obtain it, and not the Commission which must prove that the conditions of approval are not met in order to be able to refuse it’.

The General Court then at length considers the procedure followed, including the reasons for the identified gaps, and then assesses the application of the precautionary principle to same: at 109 ff with reference to the 2000 Communication on the Precautionary Principle, COM(2000)1. Crucially, at 121, as noted ‘(u)nder Regulation 1107/2009 when the applicant words its renewal application, it bears the burden of proving the efficacy and safety of the substance in question.’ ‘Since it did not discharge that burden, the approval of the active substance could not be renewed.’

The case highlights once again the crucial nature of administrative compliance with the rulebooks under EU regulatory law. Many of us will have sat through presentations by EFSA or EC officials outlining the rules in excruciating and yes, not very sexy detail. Yet to follow procedure to a tee is crucial to ensure defence against corporations taking issue with the findings at the CJEU.

The case also emphasises the importance of burden of proof, as specified in the secondary law at issue and, preferably, the ‘no data, no market’ rule in EU regulatory law.

There might of course still be an appeal with the Court.

Geert.

EU environmental law (with Leonie Reins), Edward Elgar, 2018, p.28 ff.

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