April 21, 2021
In a recent article (Exporting the Precautionary Principle) we observed that the EU, under the cover of a concern for food safety, is introducing a subjective dimension into its regulations and creating technical barriers to trade. The globalised economy, new technologies and Brexit call for a modernisation of the EU system.
As a Professor at the College of Europe and long-standing practitioner in European affairs, I view with consternation the growing complexity of EU procedures, whether on the adoption of laws and regulations, or the mechanisms for evaluation and authorisation.
By itself, this complexity produces unfortunate indirect effects: administrative burden, multiple exceptions and derogations, often insurmountable difficulties for SMEs and developing countries. But it will be further exacerbated by four related phenomena that are impossible to ignore.
Four external phenomena demand a modernisation of the EU system
The first relates to technological innovation. The EU’s precautionary principle is clearly conceived as a shield against any scientific advance for which zero risk does not exist, but equally exists for well-intentioned reasons aimed at reassuring the consumer. This is why GMOs, hormones in beef, antibiotics for animal production and chlorine-treated chicken have been rejected by European decision-makers and public opinion – the latter being the dominant force.
It is obvious that research and development is going to continue and intensify at global level, creating new generations of products, technologies and substances. On its current path, the European Union will not be able to keep up with these cutting-edge advances. It will find itself returning to the past unless it evolves towards a mixed system of innovation and precaution, in which both components are assessed objectively.
The second factor concerns Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). As emphasised in my previous article, the European Union remains committed to free trade and continues to negotiate such agreements. But not all FTAs follow the same model. The recent ones, e.g. CETA with Canada, contain environmental and health clauses inspired by the EU, but we see that their ratification is facing huge problems. Certain EU states, and even some regions, believe that the clauses do not sufficiently recognise the precautionary principle. The older FTAs meanwhile are a source of disputes which the World Trade Organisation is attempting to resolve via panels, whose conclusions are rarely enforced.
The third phenomenon is Brexit. Formerly a member of the EU, one of the world’s leading economies now finds itself in outright competition with the Union and free to modify its health and plant health standards, agencies and production models. Will the United Kingdom – currently negotiating a free trade agreement with Washington D.C. – move towards a more “American” model? Will it create an FDA-style agency? Will it accept GMOs, hormones and chlorine-treated chicken? Will it be more flexible on MRLs? Anything is possible, and all options are on the table. It seems that significant disagreements are in store and that numerous legal actions will arise regarding rules of origin and adherence to EU standards which, though in principle protected by the divorce agreement, are already disputed in the context of movement of goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
A final point should be underlined. Between theory and practice there is a yawning gap, one that grows bigger every day. The main political orientation of the EU remains anti-GMO, but nevertheless millions of tonnes of animal protein imported into the EU every year (roughly 70% of the total) come from GMO-cultivated crops. This state of affairs is likely to extend to New Plant Breeding Techniques as well.
A first step in the right direction: expanding rules of equivalence
We are seeing a willingness from the Commission to simplify, manifested in its draft proposal to amend basic Regulation 2017/625 on Official Controls.
In the current version of the Regulation, the potential for equivalence between the EU and a third country is recognised in a limited range of areas: food and feed safety, GMOs, animal welfare and organic production/labelling. By contrast, the principle of equivalence does not apply to animal health requirements, animal by-products or plant production products.
The Commission’s proposed amendment, which will be subject to the ordinary legislative procedure, aims to extend the regime of equivalence to animal health. Regulation 2017/625 provides for strict requirements on import certificates and control mechanisms once the third country obtains equivalence following verification by the EU. Under the proposal, these provisions will apply de facto to a broader scope that includes animal health. Thus, the principle of equivalence will be strengthened to the benefit of citizens and consumers. This is clearly a positive move and must be supported.
Taking action to make decisions more objective
With numerous trade disputes looming, we must re-think the role of EU agencies, in particular the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) whose opinions are too often subject to political interpretation. A comprehensive overhaul of the system of risk management is required in order to simplify and inject more objectivity into the adoption of implementing acts, a process that has now become too complex, too opaque, too ad hoc…and too subjective.
Also read my first contribution:
“Exporting the precautionary principle”
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Author : Daniel Gueguen