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Brussels is weighing a further delay to proposals to limit harmful chemicals and microplastics amid growing hostility to climate regulation from industry and right-wing politicians.
The European Commission’s tabling of proposals for the new version of the Reach regulation on the sale and use of chemicals, which will affect substances used in semiconductors and a range of other products, could now be shelved until after EU-wide elections next June, said people briefed on the situation.
The timetable for announcing the proposals had already been shifted from last year to this. The plans would mark the first step in changing rules that would then have to be negotiated by member states and the European parliament. The current rules are vastly complex and took seven years to negotiate.
In a hearing on Tuesday morning, Maroš Šefčovič, the Slovak commissioner nominated to oversee the EU’s Green Deal climate package following the departure of its previous chief Frans Timmermans, failed to guarantee that the chemicals proposal would be brought forward on time.
He listed proposals that Brussels hoped to present, including on transport conditions for animals, before the election but said only that “work continues on Reach”.
“Reach is at a standstill,” said a senior EU diplomat. “There has been a huge growth in the administrative burden. Leaders feel there is too much red tape, too much regulation, and that is suffocating our competitiveness.”
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has not decided whether to present the proposal on December 20, the last chance to keep her pledge to hit the 2023 deadline, two EU officials said.
If the proposal is pushed until after the EU elections, it may be scrapped altogether as a new commission will take charge.
Another EU official said that changes to the rules, which would restrict or phase out particularly harmful substances, were “highly political” because of the impact on industry.
Many of the chemicals that could be curbed are substances that are crucial to the green transition and the production of semiconductors. An outstanding question is how to regulate polymers, which can be hazardous but are ubiquitous in products from clothing to plastic bags.
“We have to find a balance to achieve all the objectives,” the official said.
Von der Leyen is under pressure from the centre-right EPP group, her own political grouping, to cut the burden of environmental regulations on businesses as they battle steep costs and geopolitical trade tensions.
She has yet to say whether she will run again for commission president, but a successful run would need the backing of both the pro-industry EPP and the French government, which has publicly backed tightening rules on hazardous chemicals.
The debate over the regulation comes amid a wider backlash against the costs of the green transition and its impact on voters ahead of the EU elections.
A proposal on microplastic pollution is also awaiting von der Leyen’s decision, one EU official said.
In written answers to the parliament’s environment committee, Šefčovič said the commission was carrying out “careful analysis” to “reduce health hazards and environmental damage from chemical pollution” while “avoiding too high an administrative burden on European businesses”.
The chemical industry has backed an update of the far-ranging Reach regulation, which currently runs to 849 pages, as long as it is “targeted and efficient”, according to industry body Cefic.
But it has said that the chemicals regulation should not be “driven by judgment instead of scientific evidence” amid fears that the revision would slow approvals for key substances. Several member states led by Denmark are, meanwhile, pushing for a tough Reach proposal.
The commission declined to comment.
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