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Article related to: People and perspectives
"Courage is needed to make REACH more effective"
It was over 10 years ago when Geert Dancet moved to Helsinki to lead the newly established European Chemicals Agency. Soon, it is time to hand over the baton to his successor. We spoke with Mr Dancet about his years as ECHA's Executive Director and asked him what needs to be done to guarantee that the use of chemicals in Europe, and globally, will become even safer.
To be exact, the journey started already some years before Mr Dancet took the job as Executive Director of ECHA. Before coming to Helsinki, he had been coordinating the preparatory work at the European Commission to set up the Agency. “Getting here on day one required enormous preparations from the Commission. As I was the Head of Unit in charge of getting ECHA ready, my first day as the Executive Director already had a lot of history behind it,” he explains.
Hundreds of things to be proud of
When speaking with Mr Dancet, it is clear that he is happy with what the Agency has accomplished under his leadership. “It is very difficult to identify only a few things that I am proud of. There are literally hundreds of things that we have delivered well,” he says.
Every year that has passed has come with its own milestones. But what has been constant is the motivation of staff throughout the Agency and a will to achieve the set goals. “It is important that the organisation is there and that it takes pride in wanting to deliver, every year, on its plans to the highest degree. We have all been working hard and willing to walk the extra mile to get there. To me, that is success,” Mr Dancet says.
Finding ways to collaborate with and engage stakeholders and Member States in ECHA’s work has been one of the priorities for Mr Dancet. This is not something that is self-evident in many public organisations or European agencies. “We have become the reference point when it comes to stakeholder collaboration. To achieve this, we have established clear rules on how to become one of our accredited stakeholders. At the same time, we have shown our collaborators that we listen and want to get their input and feedback on, for example, important policies and strategies”.
But it is not only about cooperation between ECHA and the outside world – a big part of the success comes from good collaboration within the Agency. Although different experts are located in their own units and directorates around the house, a strong performance is only achieved when they share their expertise and help each other out.
“Already during the first five years, we put in place strong processes and strategies. But during my second five-year mandate, we have managed to create an integrated regulatory strategy that brings together all our processes in an even more powerful way. Our work has been praised by our peer organisations internationally and we are seen as an Agency that has set the standard very high. People are looking up to us as a benchmark and, naturally, this is a nice feeling,” Mr Dancet says.
There is always a but...
Even with all the achievements, there are always things that could have been done better. For Mr Dancet, most of this boils down to two words: efficiency and courage.
“For example, it took some years to improve the efficiency of the evaluations we carry out and we could have improved the completeness check before the 2013 registration deadline,” he points out and continues, “it has also taken us time to build confidence in our ability to interact with and explain our decisions to industry, in particular to those sectors affected by them. We are there now, but it took longer than expected”.
However, looking beyond the efficiency of the Agency itself, Mr Dancet calls for a more efficient European Commission. “A lot of time-bound promises were made by the Commission in their first review of REACH, but they haven’t actually lived up to them. For instance, we still do not have an amendment of the REACH annexes for nanoforms. Similarly, the identification of endocrine disruptors has suffered from the late adoption of the test method and setting criteria. In addition, there is an enormous backlog when it comes to converting our opinions into their decisions” he explains.
According to Mr Dancet, one of the reasons for the inefficiency could be that there are two Directorate Generals in charge of REACH and CLP – Environment and Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs. “This slows down decision making horrendously. Maybe we should have tried harder to convince them to only give us one partner directorate general, but I think it would have been difficult to achieve. The stakes are high with these pieces of legislation – it requires political courage to give priority to one policy side only,” he says.
Calling for more courage
And it is just that – courage – that is needed to rationalise REACH and make it more effective. Since it took years to agree on the final text for REACH, it is not going to be easy to change it. But it is necessary. “Now the legislation is more than 10 years old, policy makers should have the courage to look at it again,” Mr Dancet says.
One aspect that needs to be looked at is how substances of concern are dealt with. “To me, the whole authorisation system is far too slow. It can easily take more than five years from identifying a Candidate List substance until applications for authorisation start to come in. If substances are really of very high concern, they need to be acted on much faster,” he insists. Similarly, the part on substances in articles is not working well either, which makes it more difficult to control the presence of these substances in articles.
Beyond correcting what is not working well, it should be kept in mind that the legislation was written with 2020 as the target date for achieving the objectives. “This decade will soon end and the information collected will, in most cases, no longer be up to date. A recent ECHA study concluded that most companies are not planning to regularly update their registrations despite the obligation to do so. The SIEFs that had to ensure that registrants of the same substance prepared a joint registration no longer have an obligation to continue their existence beyond 2018, which is not desirable,” Mr Dancet points out.
REACH could also be made even more powerful by integrating other legislation into it. “There is great potential for better regulation if the number of pieces of legislation that affect chemicals were reduced from above 50 to a more manageable number,” Mr Dancet points out and continues, “if this cannot be done within a reasonable timeframe, ECHA can still provide many services to other legislation based on all the information we have from REACH registrations. We want to be the knowledgebase on chemicals – we would not have to implement all legislation but the science-based prioritisation of which chemicals need control could be left to ECHA and their validation to the Commission”.
Knowing the organisation before changing it
At the end of September, the Management Board of ECHA selected Mr Bjorn Hansen as the next Executive Director of the Agency. His appointment is planned to be confirmed and the contract signed in the Management Board meeting in mid-December.
When asked what the main challenges will be for Mr Hansen, Mr Dancet mentions three things.
“The first and a very important aspect to remember is that ECHA should not downsize. Anything that can reasonably be outsourced has already been outsourced. If the Agency were to be made smaller, it would also mean that the output and ambition would have to be lower. Is that what we want for Europe when the rest of the world sees us an example?” Mr Dancet asks.
The second aspect is how the Agency should be financed in the future. Until now, two-thirds of the financing has been covered by subsidy. “The question is should ECHA continue to be dependent on this subsidy or are there other ways to collect more fees and charges?”
Third, Mr Dancet reminds that any new leader must learn the business in great detail before starting to make bigger changes. It is also important to have a strong commitment to the staff because that is where the biggest competencies lie. “It is very tempting to rapidly make changes, but it is equally important to first understand what this agency does, what the role of each unit is, and who does what. Only after that can pieces be moved around.”
So, what's next?
From the start of 2018, Mr Dancet will officially retire, but this doesn’t mean he will be doing nothing. “I want to share my knowledge and capacity as a manager and the good overview I have of chemicals legislation with others. I am particularly interested in working more in the international field, explaining that the rest of the world can benefit from what Europe has achieved. I hope that those following ECHA’s work will keep believing in the Agency’s work to continue making life better for companies and citizens, not only in Europe, but also globally,” he concludes.
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
Published on: 16 November 2017
Top image: © ECHA
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