Growing political row over 'imposition of new EU chemicals boss


December 19, 2007 17:59 | by Andy Rowell

Next Monday the new head of the fledgling European Chemicals Agency will be formally appointed in Helsinki, the home of the new Agency.

Despite the formal announcement, the European Commission is facing a growing political row over its “imposition” of a business-friendly candidate to head the Agency.

The Agency is tasked with implementing REACH – the highly controversial chemical legislation that was adopted by the EU in December 2006, after years of lobbying by the chemical industry to water it down. The Agency will be hugely influential as it will oversee how 30,000 industrial and everyday chemicals that are used by the public are regulated within the EU.

The Commission’s candidate of choice is Geert Dancet, a Belgian-born economist who is currently the Interim Director of the Agency. He is a twenty-year career bureaucrat from the Commission, who critics argue will be its “puppet” and not be independent enough.

Since 2004, Dancet has headed the REACH Unit within DG Enterprise that was instrumental in formatting the chemical legislation that has been criticised by green groups as being compromised by the chemical industry.

Members of the Management Board of the Chemicals Agency from Member States argue that the selection process for his job was rigged by the Commission against candidates who would take a more critical stance against the chemical industry.

An investigation by SpinWatch has found the name of one of the strongest candidates – Ethel Forsberg, the head of Kemi, the Swedish Chemicals Agency, was removed by the Commission before the short-list of two was sent to the Management Board to decide who to pick. The short-list comprised of Dancet and Anne Lambert, the UK’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, who was not specialised in chemicals policy.

“We knew the Commission had sent three names to the Commissioners, to the College of Commissioners”, says Dr Odile Gauthier, from the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development in Paris, the French delegate on the Management Board. “None of us in France, and I think it was the same in every country, thought that something would happen at the level of the Commissioners. We were very upset because we felt the Commission was imposing its own candidate.”

Dr Thomas Jakl, the Austrian delegate from the Federal Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management in Vienna adds: “The whole management board was quite upset by being confronted by a short-list that contained only two members, knowing that there were other people who were qualified to appear on the short-list”.

The rejected candidate, Ethel Forsberg, says “I was surprised I was not on the list. After one interview I was told that I was on the proposed short-list”. She adds: “It is hard for me not to be aware that Sweden is one of those member states whose chemical policy is quite radical. I don’t know if that was worrisome to someone if I was connected to such a chemical policy.”

When Dancet appeared before the European Parliament’s influential Environment Committee last month British MEP Caroline Jackson said he had “too cosy a relationship” with the Commission.

Several environmental NGOs, including Friends of the Earth Europe, had written to the Commission asking for a formal review of Dancet’s appointment, although this week the Commission rejected their complaint as “inadmissible”.

Andy Rowell writes for Spinwatch, where this article first appeared, on 17th December 2007.