’Brussels’ is often blamed for making unnecessary regulation, or for making life more complicated for citizens and businesses. Yet Member States themselves are sometimes guilty of ‘goldplating’ EU legislation – adding clauses and provisions as a means of getting unpopular legislation onto the statute book with the added convenience of being able to blame ‘Europe’ for it.
In reality, of course, the creation and implementation of European legislation is rarely so black and white – it is a collaborative process involving the Commission and Member States, but also many other stakeholders, a process that we call ‘Smart Regulation’.
I was glad therefore to have had the opportunity at the European Parliament Plenary Session in Strasbourg to discuss Smart Regulation with MEPs, many of whom were rightly critical of the way EU legislation has sometimes been adopted and adapted by Member States in the past.
Smart Regulation has improved the way legislation is made: now, each legislative proposal is submitted for public consultation for 12 weeks (up from eight weeks before) and both the concrete legislative proposals and the results of the public consultations are then subjected to a strict impact assessment study that looks at the financial, social and environmental impact of the proposals and makes sure that they are line with the principle of subsidiarity – that legislation should be introduced by the level of government most appropriately placed to do so.
But these processes are not just for show, to give the impression that we are listening – more than 30% of proposals are sent back for revision following the public consultation and impact assessment stages.
Once the legislative proposal has been adopted by the College of Commissioners, it is sent at the same time to the EP, the Council – i.e. to the Governments of all EU Member States – and to all national parliaments for further consultation. That is when the real legislative work of EU experts, Ambassadors, MEPs, Ministers and Heads of States and Governments begins. And national parliaments are also actively involved in this process.
National parliaments have been particularly active in identifying potential subsidiarity issues – so far, there have been 60 cases where they have questioned the need for European legislation in a particular area, and I have responded to each and every one with relevant expert arguments in favour of European action. Also, the involvement of national parliaments in the pre-legislative process includes a political dialogue on the substance of Commission proposals, where we have received over 1400 opinions until now – here again, I have responded to all.
The process does not end there, however. New EU legislative proposals are often followed with enormous interest by the media and public alike. For example, during the discussions surrounding the regulation on the European Citizens Initiative – that will give citizens a direct line to EU legislators on any issue supported by a million signatures – I took part in a number of seminars, hearings and discussions in addition to my regular participation in the relevant EP and Council committees.
So why am I speaking about this? As European leaders are increasingly criticised in the press and elsewhere for dithering over the economic crisis, and Member States seem to be at odds with each other and with the Commission over how to act, it is more important than ever, I believe, that we understand EU laws are drawn up through collaboration and cooperation, not imposed from on high.
All stakeholders – be they European citizens, associations, MEPs or government representatives – can and do actively participate in this process, and I’d like to point out that their chances of influencing the final legislation are pretty high, since the EU is probably the most consensual institution in the world – always trying to find a compromise solution acceptable for all.
European legislation is the result of this collaborative process, and yet it is rarely perceived in this way. Why?
This was a question I discussed recently with Andreas Vosskuhle, the President of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. We tried to find a reasonable answer, and agreed that very often European citizens are simply not aware just how many opportunities there are for them to get directly involved in the legislative process. The image of Europe’s so-called ‘democratic deficit’, where decisions are taken in the ivory towers of Brussels with scant regard for the needs of European citizens, is hard to shake off.
But there are ways that we can at least try. For example, schools could teach not only the history of the EU but also the way it works; professional university courses such as engineering or medical studies could include classes on how European technical norms are adopted or the process of granting licences for EU medicines.
Mr. Vosskuhle is very interested in the involvement of national parliaments in the EU legislative process and in the prospect of the European Citizens Initiative (ECI). I agreed with him that measures to involve more EU citizens more directly, in particular the younger generation, are welcome. Even if citizens’ initiatives were rejected in the end, for instance, because they were not in the broad EU interest, or considered too regional, they would ideally engage closer the European public in a wider debate . If managed in a responsible manner by all actors involved, an instrument like the ECI would help closing the gap between the EU and its citizens.
We agreed that real political discussions must not be just national but European, at least for the key issues that affect all of us in the EU. If Europe is not seen as an integral part of the solution, then it will continue to be viewed as part of the problem, viewed as making life more complicated and bureaucratic for citizens rather than doing what it really does, which is promote European values and principles around the world.
So, back to my discussions in the EP last week. The vast majority of MEPs were very supportive of the Commission’s approach to Smart Regulation. There were however a few critical voices. The Czech MEP Edvard Kožušník was critical of the Commission’s approach to cutting red tape, arguing that it was too little too late. I was glad to be able to respond that the European Commission will definitely meet its target of reducing the administrative burden on businesses by 25 % in 2012 (saving them 30.8 billion euros). And yet we can go even further – we have tabled proposals which would allow for a 31% cut – but that will also depend on the EP and Member States. And as long as some of the administrative burden comes from goldplating, European efforts to cut red tape will continue to be undermined at the national level.
Also during last week’s debate, British MEP Sajjad Karim suggested that part of the problem is that when we update EU rules we still keep the old ones in place as well. I agree, but I think we should also not limit ourselves to saying, as Mr Karim suggested, that “once a new legislative proposal is adopted the old one must be abolished”. I think we need to go much further – our ultimate goal should be to replace 27 old national norms by one high-quality, more efficient European one. That’s the real purpose of European legislation – and working together to make it a reality should be our ultimate goal!