The General Court of the European Union on Wednesday (16 December) backed Sweden, saying that the European Commission breached EU law by failing to publish a definition for hormone-affecting chemicals or ‘endocrine disrupters’.
The Commission was obliged under the EU’s biocides regulation to adopt scientific criteria for the identification of these chemicals by 13 December 2013. However, in July 2013, a draft proposal was blocked by the Commission’s former Secretary-General, Catherine Day, who wanted the executive to make an impact analysis first.
In May 2014, Lena Ek, who was then Sweden’s environment minister, decided to sue the European Commission over this delay. Sweden’s stance was eventually backed by both the Council and the Parliament. Ek told EURACTIV in an interview back then that if the Commission did not act, Sweden would go against the EU’s executive ban all endocrine disruptors.
The General Court of Justice said in its ruling that the impact analysis proposed by the executive and Day was unnecessary.
“With regard to the alleged necessity, referred to by the Commission, of carrying out an impact analysis with a view to evaluating the effects of the various possible solutions, the General Court finds that that there is no provision of the regulation which requires such an impact analysis,” the Court said.
Some chemicals that are used to soften plastics and can be found in everyday products such as rubber boots and bath curtains have come under suspicion of harmfully affecting the human endocrine system. Rising levels of cancers and fertility problems have attracted scientists’ attention to endocrine disrupting chemicals, with some calling for strict regulation of the substances, in line with the precautionary principle.
“This is an unprecedented decision by the European Courts. It ruled that the Commission is illegally delaying a crucial decision to protect EU citizens and the environment,” said Vito Buonsante, legal advisor for ClientEarth on toxic chemicals.
“The Commission has been assessing the economic impact protecting our health and our environment. The process is biased and there is no clear idea of when it will end. It must stop immediately. The Commission needs to start protecting the public, not the chemicals industry,” he added.
PAN Europe, an anti-pesticides NGO, said in a statement that the Court’s ruling “might be the only democratic step we have seen since the Commission missed the deadline to present the criteria in December 2013”.
The former European Commissioner for Environment at the time, Janez Poto?nik, who is now Chair of UNEP’s International Resource Panel, told EURACTIV, “The problem of endocrine disruptors is a very serious one which I and my services at the time tried to address based on the precautionary principle and scientific advice. Already in 2013, my services were ready to proceed both on criteria for the regulations and a revised strategy on endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Poto?nik added that “unfortunately” it was impossible to reach agreement within the Commission for our proposed course of action and this led to the current situation where the Commission was brought before the Court by Sweden, supported by several other member states as well as by the parliament and council. The judgement of the Court was the expected outcome and I regret that it was ever necessary for the Court to decide that the Commission had failed to fulfill its obligations.
“Unfortunately, this is another case which illustrates the systemic failures of governments to integrate policies. While I was the Commission’s environment commissioner I pointed many times to the difficulties faced by enivornment ministers around the world in pursuing courses of action which were needed but which were deemed by others to be too burdensome or to threaten the competitiveness of certain industries. Like the recent controversy involving Volkswagen, it seems that action is only taken when problems become too big to ignore,” he said.