The European parliament has secured backing for a long-awaited regulatory regime for Europe's chemicals industry: registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (Reach).

The European parliament has secured backing for a long-awaited regulatory regime for Europe’s chemicals industry: registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (Reach). 

Reach was approved in Strasbourg after a marathon vote on 1038 amendments. It was first published by the European Commission in 2003, following five years of preliminary discussions.

One key issue yet to be resolved is whether authorisations for marketing and use of substances potentially harmful to health or the environment should be time-limited, making them subject to review by the Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency which will be established under Reach.

Governments must now determine their own common position, although political group leaders - and EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas - predict that emerging consensus between MEPs and ministers will lead to an outline political agreement in December.

A second reading of the proposal is due in 2006, and Reach is likely to enter into force late 2006/early 2007, launching a phased, 11-year programme of mandatory registration of around 30 000 substances.

It was predicted that EU ministers would clear the proposal in November, but Germany’s new Chancellor Angela Merkel asked UK premier Tony Blair to postpone the vote to allow time for her incoming coalition government to scan the revised draft.

Berlin’s role in the Reach debate has been crucial: there are powerful German chemical interests at play, and Germany has the largest national delegation in the European Parliament. German MEPs dominate the industry-friendly centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in Strasbourg.

After the vote, Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the EPP spokesperson on Reach, complained that Socialist-backed amendments had introduced an ’overly complex system of authorisation renewal, at five-year intervals, which means that chemical products must undergo the procedure again.’

She told Chemistry World: ’We in the EPP wanted a system based on a scientific risk approach, with no time limit if the risk of the chemical is adequately monitored.’

Oomen-Ruijten suggested that ministers have already made up their minds to support Reach, and would overturn the parliament’s amendments on time-limited authorisations.

She claimed that the UK government had shown her a draft of the forthcoming December agreement, which indicates that ministers prefer a risk-based approach. 

The UK is hoping to record at least one major success before the end of 2005: a go-ahead for Reach would overcome criticism faced over an apparent lack of progress during the country’s six-month presidency of the EU.

Reach developments are being closely monitored by the US. Guido Sacconi, the Italian MEP who steered the legislation through its parliamentary stages reported, ’The US administration is not happy about Reach and actively lobbied against it. Washington fears demands from environmental and public health activists for the creation of a similar regime’. Arthur Rogers