US lobbying attacks EU’s flagship ‘precautionary principle’ protection legislation

18th December 2018 / EU
US lobbying attacks EU's flagship 'precautionary principle' protection legislation

The precautionary principle is one of the most important pieces of legislation the European Union has ever passed into law. Its fundamental principles govern policies related to the environment, health and food safety.  The main characteristic feature of the precautionary principle is risk prevention in the face of scientific uncertainty. Therefore, manufacturers have to prove a product is safe as opposed to in the USA where it is the role of the state to prove it is unsafe. That principle is now under threat from pressure by the USA.


Europe’s most hallowed principle of consumer protection is now under siege after a massive lobbying push by an organization representing corporations such as U.S. oil giant Chevron and German chemical powerhouse BASF.

Since the year 2000, Brussels has used its “precautionary principle” to regulate products ranging from paint strippers and more recently to driverless cars and genetically modified crops. However, Washington has long condemned this EU framework as a form of protectionism that allows policymakers to be on the side of caution to protect the public and avoid environmental damage when the science is still in doubt.


Now, some of the world’s traditional heavy manufacturing industries are trying to introduce a new way of thinking into the game through a competing philosophy: the innovation principle. The intention is to grant companies broader leeway to bring products to market because of their significance as a scientific advance – such as Genitically Modified crops.

There are merits behind this thinking just as much as there are dangers and signs are emerging that this new approach is gaining traction in Brussels. In the European Parliament last week, lawmakers voted on a regulation that includes the innovation principle in EU law for the first time.


Advocates of this new system say it would not replace the precautionary principle, but allow for a framework more geared to invention. Critics retort that the innovation principle would leave the door wide open for products and substances with as yet unknown effects on human health.


The plastic compound Bisphenol A was, for example, used for decades to make baby bottles before its harmful effects on the hormonal system were known. The EU ended up barring it for that use by citing the precautionary principle.

Emails, letters and technical papers seen by POLITICO show how a consortium of the world’s largest mining, energy and agrochemical companies — including a company with a nickel mine in the heart of Russia’s most polluted industrial city — have led a years-long campaign to lobby the EU to adopt the new innovation principle.

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The chemical industry came up with it to pave the way for laxer market authorization of often risky products like chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and products of new genetic engineering techniques,” said Nina Holland, a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group whose aim is to underline the effect of corporate lobbying on EU policy-making.


The principle has previously appeared in EU strategy papers but has not been brought into law. Some lawmakers have made a last-minute push for Parliament to remove any mention of the innovation principle.

Hundreds of documents shared with POLITICO by Corporate Europe Observatory reveal a five-year campaign spearheaded by the European Risk Forum (ERF) think tank, whose members include the U.S. oil giant Chevron, Russia’s largest precious metals producer and pesticide producers like DowDuPont, Bayer and BASF, to convince officials in Brussels about the benefits of the new philosophy.

ERF members have lobbied EU officials at the highest level to make their case.

A February 2, 2017 email from an ERF executive to Robert Schroder, a member of European Innovation Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ cabinet, dubbed scientific studies with views that go against that of industry as “junk science.” It went on to argue that “the growth of ‘alternative facts’ present a growing challenge to the EU regulatory system.” The documents also reveal several successful attempts to invite Moedas to dinners and high-level conferences on the innovation principle.

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