EU Commission to crack down on recalcitrant member states over neonicotinoids

Pollinators like bees are integral to food production and supply chains. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission will trigger a never-before-used option against two member states over the abuse of so-called “emergency authorisations” for neonicotinoids, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a letter sent to NGOs, dated 19 February and seen by EURACTIV.

Four member states received a writing from Commissioner Andriukaitis asking for their commitment not to grant again the so-called “emergency authorisations” for the use of the three restricted active substances used in pesticides (Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin, and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam).

“Two have responded positively making such a commitment. For the others, the Commission intends to prepare draft Decisions in accordance with Article 53(3) of Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 that, if adopted, would prevent them from repeating the granting of these particular non-justified emergency authorisations,” the letter reads, without naming who the member states are.

EURACTIV understands it is the first time that the Commission is using this option. Besides civil society, the European Parliament had also called on the Commission to “fully use its control rights under Article 53(2) and (3)”.

EU pesticides law – specifically Article 53 of Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 – allows EU countries to authorise the use of non-approved chemicals “in special circumstances”, when there is a “danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”.

EU pesticides law gives the Commission a number of options to ensure these derogations are not abused. It can draw on EFSA to assess the emergency authorisations. It can then take measures so that countries withdraw or amend their derogations (Article 53(2) and (3) of Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009).

Commissioner Andriukaitis was responding to a letter sent on 22 January by a collective of European environmental NGOs who wanted to stress that bees are still exposed to dangerous pesticides despite the EU ban of the three neonicotinoids.

When the EU General Court upheld the ban on the three insecticides in May last year, Bayer said it would appeal the ruling as the verdict could have far-reaching consequences for the certainty and predictability of active substance approvals in the EU”.

Disputed EFSA Bee Guidance Document

Together with restraining the use of derogation by member states on neonicotinoids, the European Commission is currently updating the guidance document on bee safety standards for pesticides.

NGOs expressed in their letter concerns that farmers can simply replace the banned neonicotinoids with other pesticides that are equally harmful to bees because other pesticides are not tested to the same high standards as the three banned neonicotinoids.

Commissioner Andriukaitis replied that the dossiers for renewal or approval of active substances do contain data on chronic toxicity to bees, enabling assessment of the potential long’term risks to bees.

“Until today, the EU has not consistently applied the most up-to-date scientific criteria for assessing pesticides’ impacts on bees, adopted by EFSA as early as 2013.3 These testing standards have only been fully used in the evaluation of the three neonicotinoids that were subsequently banned, and partially in the assessment of very few other pesticides,” the NGOs said in their letter.

Commissioner Andriukaitis said that for more than five years, a clear majority of member states have refused to accept the Guidance Document by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as they do not wish to implement it before it is reviewed.

Unless it is endorsed by the member states, the Commission cannot rely on this guidance document for decisions on applications for renewal of approval.

“In order to overcome this stalemate in the Standing Committee, I have proposed to implement now the parts where there is agreement among member states. Even though not as ambitious as I would like it to be, this will still be a step forward,” Andriukaitis said in his letter.

EURACTIV understands that the Commission has a majority for its latest proposals but will only schedule a vote after the next meeting in March since it still needs to complete internal and external consultations.

For NGOs, the European Commission does not show the level of ambition required to protect insects in general and bees in particular.

“Our pollinators are in crisis and pesticides are certainly one of the prime culprits. Last year, the EU banned three bee-killing pesticides. That was a first step forward, but now the Commission seems ready to take two steps back by paving the way for other chemicals that are just as dangerous to bees. We cannot save the bees if the EU allows one poisonous pesticide to replace another,” Franziska Achterberg, the food policy director at Greenpeace EU, told EURACTIV.

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