The Brief, powered by Eni – So much for science-based policy-making

Member states met today to decide the fate of glyphosate, the most used weed killer in the world. But the decision was postponed for the seventh time and the ball is once again back in the Commission’s court.

The EU prides itself on championing evidence-based policy making, based on the principle that independent and transparent science should inform political choices so that the most advanced knowledge available ensures the best rational policy choice.

In an ideal world, maybe.

But in practice, many more factors affect the outcome. Including, perhaps, a wee bit of pee, as seen in Brussels this week.

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The EU’s food safety and chemicals agencies, EFSA and ECHA, repeatedly said glyphosate is safe.

But revelations in a high-profile US court case against Monsanto, the original producer of the infamous compound, shed light on corporate attempts to sway the science in its favour and silence the warning signals.

Reports of EFSA copy-pasting whole chunks of industry studies and accusations of cherry-picking evidence have raised concerns about the independence of science and the relationship between the industry and EU bodies.

The European Parliament banned Monsanto lobbyists from entering the building after they declined to answer questions on the revelations and their impact on the EU’s risk-assessment process. But this symbolic gesture does not prevent lobbying from taking place.

In 2016, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA, representing pesticide industries in Brussels) disclosed lobbying costs of up to €700,000 – up more than a third from 2015. Pesticide Action Network, an NGO campaigning against glyphosate, has not disclosed its 2016 lobbying costs – but in 2015 they were on a par with ECPA at €100-200K.

On the night of 24 October, the pesticide and farmers’ lobbies blasted a message on the façade of the Parliament inviting people to “consider the facts” and accept that “glyphosate is safe”.

The stunt didn’t go down well with socialist lawmakers, who are calling for Parliament boss Antonio Tajani to impose sanctions against the lobbying groups, who are an “insult to our democracy”, according to a letter seen by EURACTIV.

On the other side of the barricade, campaigning group Avaaz invited anyone and everyone to take a urine test and find out how chock full of pesticides their wee is. This follows media reports claiming traces of glyphosate are found in pretty much everything we consume.

Campaigns against glyphosate have collected millions of signatures asking the Commission to ban it forever. It’s certainly an advance for direct democracy but campaigns tend to speak to people’s guts more than to their brains, so this can hardly be described as science-based policymaking.

Finally, the mysterious comitology process is as opaque as it gets: a bunch of member state health experts lock themselves behind closed doors and hash out the issue. It is naive to believe that their primary concern is to overview scientific knowledge rather than serve the interests of their domestic electorate (whether it’s farmers or environmentalists).

Once again, member states passed the buck to the Commission, who will now have to submit the same proposal once again to member states by the end of November in appeal.

If they fail to reach an agreement for the umpteenth time, the EU executive may decide to extend the licence but it has said many times it is sick of taking the blame for member states.

Money, fear and politics affect the issue – more heavily than they should, and probably more heavily than science does.

The EU could do many things to establish its credibility as a transparent and rational policy-making body. Proposals include a new lobbying register, a reform of the comitology process, and beefing up its agencies’ independence, like EFSA is trying to do. In this case, though, it has done nothing.


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The Roundup

Another negotiation happening today has failed to impress: the EU’s flagship Emission Trading Scheme will remain substantially unchanged, and keep being meaningless, green groups said.

Michael Bloomberg is a generous man: he pledged $50m to end coal dependency. With Syria joining the Paris Agreement, and California joining in  the EU’s emission trading scheme, Trump looks all the more lonely.

The EU’s trade war with Argentina over biodiesel enters a new chapter, with European industry lodging a complaint against illegal state-aid with the Commission.

Lithuania seeks more funds to end Soviet-era nuclear power plants, but the court of auditors already warned the programme is “over budget and behind schedule”.

An upbeat Moscovici celebrated the highest growth rates in 10 years, as the EU economy slowly gains more confidence, and risks decline.

Wolfgang Schaeuble’s interim successor as German finance minister made his debut appearance at the Eurogroup, and although a crowd pleaser, his hands are tied until Merkel comes up with a coalition government in December.

How many times did you hear the words “Brexit negotiations” and “slow progress” in the same phrase? Sorry. But here it goes again: trade talks risk rolling over to 2018.

With two ministers leaving cabinet in a week, Britain’s post-Brexit development policy will be a chaotic mess. Not our words but former deputy-PM Nick Clegg’s.

Security experts slam EU foreign affairs chief Mogherini over not naming Russia as the main source of fake news, and for failing to take serious action against the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

The Commission is reviewing data transfer agreements to ensure its protection of privacy standards could stand in a court of law.

Malta’s defiant bird trapping defies EU law and angers environmentalists. But the island state’s love for wild birds may get it caught in the net of the ECJ, expected to rule in January.

Jean-Claude Juncker got another honorary degree and a funny hat! At this rate we’ll have to dedicate a special part of The Brief to documenting the Commission president’s bonkers attire.

Look out for…

Friday is International Interns Day, so be sure to thank the people that do a lot of important work that is often unappreciated. The latest round of Brexit talks also conclude. We’ll have news, if there is any available, online in the afternoon.

Views are the author’s

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