Year-long discussions between the European parliament and EU states have broken down.

Arthur Rogers/Strasbourg, France

With time running out for agreement on Reach, the European Union’s regulatory regime for chemicals, year-long discussions between the European parliament and EU states broke down on 20 November.
However, the suspension of the talks is likely to be short-lived; the parliament’s negotiating position is becoming precarious. 

Outstanding issues centre on whether industry should discontinue production and use of dangerous substances as safer substitutes are identified, and parliamentary demands that authorisations for the most toxic substances should be limited to five years. 

If MEPs fail to complete second reading soon, the European Commission could in theory deem the Reach regulation to have been adopted by default.   

However, with ministers’ indulgence, MEPs have scheduled a vote for 12 December - almost a fortnight after the deadline laid down in procedural rules. 

The Commission proposes that behind-the-scenes talks should resume on 27 November. Any agreement must be initialled by 7 Decemer - the deadline for tabling amendments for the 12 December vote. 

Parliamentary rapporteur, Italian Socialist MEP Guido Sacconi is reportedly ready to drop Strasbourg’s demands for time-limited authorisations, as long as toxin risks are ’adequately controlled’ - a proviso which MEPs have hitherto rejected as unenforceable. 

In return, Sacconi wants the ’substitution principle’ to be reinforced. 

Lack of time is not the only problem facing MEPs: at second reading, amendments must be backed by a ’super-majority’ of at least half of the Parliament’s 732 serving members, otherwise ministers’ preferred version of Reach will prevail. 

If a late breakthrough allows MEPs simply to rubber-stamp an agreement with ministers, Reach will enter into force around April, 2007, with a Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency becoming fully operational a year later.
Otherwise, ministers and MEPs may have to settle their differences through formal ’conciliation’ procedures which could take six months to complete. Reach would then not enter in force until late 2007.