The Politics of Precaution

September 19th, 2012 in Event Highlights, News

On Tuesday, September 18, the Center for the Study of Europe hosted David Vogel, Professor in the Haas School of Business and in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. The subject of Vogel’s talks was his new book,The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States. The book is an account of changes in regulatory policy on both sides of the Atlantic in recent decades and the shift of “global regulatory leadership” from Washington to Brussels.

According to Vogel, before 1990, health, safety, and environmental standards in the United States were likely to be more risk-averse, stringent, innovative, and precautionary than those adopted by either individual European countries and the European Union. Examples include restrictions on ozone-depleting chemicals, automotive emission standards, chemical safety standards, and criteria for the approval of new drugs. Whereas, since 1990, regulations adopted by the EU have generally been more stringent and comprehensive than those adopted by Washington. Examples include the banning of beef and milk hormones as well as antibiotics in animal feed, restrictions on the planting and consumption of GMOs, and the ban on the US of BPA in baby bottles.

Vogel identifies three causes behind the shift. The first has to do with public option: Americans, unlike their European counterparts, seem to favor a “regulatory status quo.” The second is related to preferences of policy-makers: regulatory policy in the United States, since 1990, has become polarized along partisan lines, whereas in the European Union, policymakers on both the political right and the political left have supported more risk-averse health, safety, and environmental standards. The third factor can be attributed to different criteria for approving risk regulations, with Europeans favoring the “precautionary principle.”

Vogel noted that European standards have influenced regulatory policy in the United States, most notably at the state level. California, for example, has adopted a wide range of risk regulations similar to those of the EU. And a number of global firms, in particular, those who operate in European markets, have adopted European consumer safety and environmental protection standards for all their products, including those sold in the U.S.

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