EFSA will keep British experts despite Brexit [Part II]

efsa-800x450 [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The European Food Safety Authority will keep UK experts in its ranks despite Brexit, because science does not recognise borders “and we want to have the best people”, the EU food watchdog chief told EURACTIV.com in an exclusive interview.

“We have about 22 staff members from the UK who we will all be able to continue to employ,” Bernhard Url said.

Bernhard Url is the executive director at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). He spoke to EURACTIV’s Network Editor Sarantis Michalopoulos.

*This is the second part of the interview. The first part was published on Thursday (20 February) and you can read it here: EFSA chief: Assessing fast-changing agrifood innovation is key challenge [Part I]

How has the Transparency Regulation affected EFSA?

We are implementing it and it has a huge impact on EFSA. The regulation has to be applied as of March 2021. So it’s more or less one year. We have 220 EFSA people who contribute to this endeavour and 50 full-time equivalents in 2020.

So it has a huge impact on our processes, on our IT on our organisation, our technology. We are working in close cooperation with the European Commission and particularly DG SANTE because they also have to do a lot of work implementing acts, guidance documents. It’s a big project, but it is well on track and we will deliver in March 2021.

Okay, so you’re quite convinced that it will go smoothly.

It’s a stressful exercise because time is short, but it goes smoothly. However, I would like to make one point of caution: expectation management.

We will deliver in March 2021 what’s in the law. But about the sophistication of data structure, searchability, downloadability, the industry and EFSA will not be fully ready in 2021 at IT level. This is a multi-year project. We have SMEs, it’s not only the big industry, and they have to get used to structured data. So we have to co-evolve also with our stakeholders. We also need to focus on the process, how we implement, in order to be transparent not only focus on the outcome.

It’s an interactive process and I believe that civil society should see and has a right to see how we implement the new regulation.

What is EFSA’s top priority for 2020?

Implementation of Transparency Regulation is the top priority, and besides that, we have to answer 600 scientific questions. Regarding the Transparency Regulation, I would say the biggest opportunity but simultaneously challenge is to create a partnership model with the member states.

This means that we will have more means and funds from the Transparency Regulation to outsource more work to the member states to pay the experts a decent amount of remuneration. And with this, we want to create a European Partnership of Risk Assessment. So we do it together with France with the Netherlands and Germany. And the challenge is also to bring onboard smaller member states that don’t have the capacity of France and Germany in this field by building consortia.

Out of the additional €62.5 million that we should get, hoping that the MFF negotiations are positive, two thirds will go back to member states and just one third is for EFSA. It’s a new model for European risk assessment; I think a very good one.

Do you expect any impact from Brexit?

Limited. We have about 22 staff members from the UK who we will all be able to continue to employ. From the staff side, it’s good. We took case by case decisions on that. And the experts that come from the UK, they are not coming as delegates from the UK, they come in their personal capacity, which means we can still use them in the future.

So they can stay?

Of course, it’s a bit of a different game because usually, we take our experts from the EU 27. In exceptional cases, if we don’t find the competencies within the Union, we can reach out to the US or Australia, New Zealand.

We do it rarely but the UK will be somewhere in between and Brits are strong in science and research. So we have to find the right balance between European experts and UK experts.

Based on the principle that science doesn’t have borders…

No, science has no borders and we want to have the best people.

They like to work with EFSA regardless of nationality. I mean, it’s for the common good. It’s for public health.

Do you believe that the Transparency Regulation will solve once and for all the discussion in Europe over science-based policymaking? As a political move, did it calm things down?

I think it was a very smart and timely political move, also supported by significant resources. It will, therefore, be a big step forward to more transparency and openness. It is good for science and public health. But it will not solve political questions.

Such as?

The political question, for example, could be do we want to use herbicides in European agriculture? Yes or no? That’s not a scientific question. That’s a value-based question. What we cannot expect from science is to communicate away political differences. It’s not a scientific question if some people say we should use herbicides while others oppose their use. And we cannot expect that the transparency regulation will solve this problem.

What I would like to ask is to separate these two fields. Let’s do science on evidence, and then we deliver an opinion. And people could say: I don’t like your opinion because it doesn’t fit my values. But I trust the process. I trust the outcome. And now we do politics on your opinion. Fine, but let’s not mix the two fields as we will end up in muddy waters.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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