Although the European Commission’s Work Programme 2024 (released today) shows plans to deliver on ongoing files related to air, water and nature restoration, plans to follow through on promises made on chemicals, animal welfare and food systems have been dropped, betraying the Commission’s commitment to protecting human health and the environment.
This complete disregard for the REACH reform, the animal welfare revision, and the Sustainable Food Systems Law represents a serious breach of the formal commitments made by this Commission, jeopardising its legacy.
As pillars of the European Green Deal, each file is crucial to Europe’s efforts to tackle the triple planetary crises, climate, pollution and biodiversity loss, whilst ensuring a healthy environment for EU citizens.
“We know the REACH reform and the animal welfare revision were ‘oven ready’, and the Sustainable Food Systems Law was also in the pipeline. Sacrificing them is anoutrageous political decision, disregarding science and citizens’ demands in favour of short-term electoral considerations. It compromises the legacy of this Commission. President von der Leyen cannot claim to deliver on the Green Deal whilst turning a blind eye to chemicals, animal welfare and food systems. People’s health and Europe’s biodiversity are not second-rate priorities, and the cost of further inaction is frighteningly high.”
“By neglecting the necessary repair of REACH, the European Commission has betrayed European citizens, turning a blind eye to chemical pollution and favouring toxic industry short-term interests over citizens. It is now clear to us; the profits of the chemical industry are more important than the health of Europeans. The European Green Deal will be remembered as the European Toxic Deal.
We will not stand idly by as our health, our environment, and the future of all living beings are sacrificed for short-term toxic gains. People demand accountability. Our health, our children, and our planet deserve nothing less.”
A reform to this flagship law was promised in the Chemicals Sustainability Strategy three years ago to better protect citizens and the environment as well as boosting innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals, critical for the green transition and competitiveness of the European industry. The current REACH does not adequately regulate harmful chemicals found in a wide range of products risking human health. This includes endocrine disruptors, which were proven to be harmful over 20 years ago.
The reform aims to strengthen and streamline chemical controls, which are “too slow to sufficiently protect consumers and professional users against risks from the most hazardous substances”. As the EEB has shown, the EU and national officials often take over a decade to identify hazardous chemicals and then another decade to restrict their use.
The Commission’s proposal was initially set to be published by the end of 2022, then delayed to spring 2023, then the fourth quarter of 2023,and now it has been removed from the plans by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen in response to pressure from the German chemicals industry.
Sustainable Food Systems Law
The legislative framework for a Sustainable Food Systems Law is expected to be the legislative backbone to the Farm to Fork Strategy, providing an overarching vision and direction of travel for a transition to sustainable food systems across the EU, and yet the Commission’s Work Programme gives no clear indication regarding its future.
Despite promises to publish a proposal in late September 2023, no reference to the Law whatsoever is made in the Work Programme, and the transition to sustainable food systems is only mentioned in relation to the “strategic dialogue on the future of EU agriculture” announced by President von der Leyen in the SOTEU speech.
How this dialogue will be structured is unclear, as are the outcomes of the extensive stakeholder consultations that have taken place over the past three and a half years. Designed to discuss how to structure the transition to sustainable food systems in an inclusive setting, these consultations have been organised and managed by the Commission using public money and have required stakeholders to invest time, capacity, and effort.
Revision of the animal welfare legislation
The revision of the EU animal welfare legislation, including the implementation of multiple successful European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI), including ‘End the Cage Age’, under the Farm to Fork Strategy, has been reduced to a single measure, only addressing the welfare of animals during transport.
The continued suffering of millions of farmed animals triggered 1.4 million EU citizens to sign the ECI calling for an end to the use of cages. The Commission responded with a commitment to phase out cages by 2027 along with their revision of this greatly outdated (2004) legislation, which failed a fitness check in 2022. The removal of these commitments from the Work Programme shows a complete disregard not only for animals’ health and wellbeing but also for participatory democracy.
While the main focus is now on implementation, the Commission have stated that they plan to release proposals on the protection of animals during transport, preventing microplastic pollution, improving forest monitoringand a mobility package.
There are also plans:
to bring into law the proposals on nature restoration, classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals, air quality, urban wastewater treatment, water pollutants in order to advance towards zero pollution and protect and restore Europe’s nature.
To adopt an initiative on water resilience to ensure access to water for citizens, nature and the economy, while also tackling catastrophic flooding, and identify and assess how best to manage climate risks across EU policy areas.
At this stage in the mandate, the Commission plans to focus on implementation and enforcement tasks, and ensure that the rules agreed on deliver for people and businesses. When breaches occur, the Commission will continue to engage with Member States to remedy the problems swiftly and to act decisively on infringements which obstruct the implementation of important EU policy objectives.
There is a general notice about a fitness check of polluter pays principle, but no mention of a proposal for reviewing the Environmental Liability Directive. Prioritising the fitness check with no law making follow-up robs both tools of their potential to achieve the Zero Pollution Ambition.