Now that the new European Commission is finally approved, we can get back to everyday politics in Brussels.

And what better way to start than the rumblings of another trade spat with the United States? Other than, say, a trade spat with the United States that involves all sorts of intense lobbying efforts and reveals a fundamental philospophical disagreement between the EU and the Bush administration?

In an American Prospect article published last July, Samuel Loewenberg wrote that efforts to derail a proposed European regulation known as Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) illustrated American corporate lobbyists’ difficulty coming to grips with the European Union. Thursday’s IHT reported that there are now 50,000 lobbyists in Brussels. No doubt, many of them are well-versed in REACH and will soon by very busy, as the European Commission’s proposal heads toward its first reading in the European Parliament.

REACH would apply the “precautionary principle” to EU chemical regulation. In practice this means the burden of proof — and the cost — is shifted to industry. Rather than waiting for regulators to assess the risks of a new product, chemical producers will now have to routinely prove the safety of substances they produce.

As one might expect, the world’s chemical industry is not all that thrilled by this proposition.

Since the first White Paper on REACH was published in 2001, the Bush Adminstration has heavily lobbying against it on behalf of the chemical industry, as Rep. Henry Waxman‘s Special Investigations Team in the Minority Office of the House Committee on Government Reform has documented in great detail.

European environmentalist groups are already upset that the proposal adopted by the Commission last year was a heavily watered-down version of the White Paper. Now that REACH is likely to be discussed by the European Parliament, all the lobbying efforts that lead to that are like to reintensify.

American opposition to REACH highlights the growing divergence in regulatory thinking between the United States and Europe. The Bush administration is particularly wary of the precautionary principle, which is at odds with its doctrine of a “cost-benefit regulatory state”.

The White House view was presented in a recent speech, John D. Graham, the Adminstrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget outlined the U.S. government’ position:

While the USA moves in this science-based direction, we fear that the European Union is moving in a different direction. Professor David Vogel of the University of California at Berkeley recently completed a comparative study of USA and EU regulatory policy. In his article published in the European Journal of Environmental Law, he noted that “The precautionary principle has emerged as a critical component of the new European approach to risk regulation as well as an important focus of disagreement between the US and Europe. . . Europeans are seeking to widen the basis upon which a country may exclude products on the grounds that they pose either unknown or unacceptable risks, while the US is seeking to strengthen the role of risk assessment in order to limit the ability of its trading partners to use regulations as non-tariff barriers.”

Graham said the United States opposed the precautionary principle because it is ill-defined, redundant, discouraging of innovation, and unclear in how it applies to the potential risks of precautionary measures. He also argued that is it is “potential camouflage for protectionism”:

… it is important to make sure that the principle is not abused for illegitimate trade proposes. Yet one of the early decisions of the World Trade Organization, concerning the EC’s ban on hormone-treated beef, illustrated how the EC had attempted to justify a permanent ban on certain hormone-treated products when the issue should have been handled under provisional authority that is receptive to scientific advances. For years the USA has also been making the case in Europe — with limited success — that genetically-modified foods should be regulated based on science and risk assessment. Our backs are now against the wall, and we are doing what this Administration does not like to do: we are litigating the GMO issue in the World Trade Organization in order to uphold the future viability of this promising technology.

REACH, which is still a long way from becoming law, is leading toward another dispute before the World Trade Organisation like the GMO dispute mentioned in Graham’ speech. Loewenberg quoted a May, 2003, New York Times article om which U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance William Lash said of REACH, “This is a big game; it will dwarf the GMO dispute.”

The Bush adminstration has already made its first move by complaining to a WTO committee that REACH represents an illegal “technical barrier to trade”.

Watch this space.