19 December 2014

Commission pledges to meddle less in citizens’ lives

On Tuesday, the Commission presented its priorities for the upcoming year, including a commitment to “less EU interference in [citizen’s] daily lives.” In our mandate to the new Commission, we set out a series of proposals for a less interfering EU, tipping Frans Timmermans – then Dutch Foreign Minister, and now the EU’s master red-tape cutter – as the ideal person to enforce this.  Having sifted through the details, does Timmermans’ claim that “this time things really are different,” stack up? As far as we can see, there are three elements to Timmermans’ much needed push-back.

Scrapping pending proposals

Timmermans wants to scrap 80 out of 450 pending proposals. Similar exercises have been done before for proposals for which there’s no Qualified Majority amongst national ministers. What’s new is a six-month deadline for three proposals, including the controversial proposal to amend the Pregnant Workers Directive. This is great news, and exactly the type of guillotine mechanism that Open Europe is consistently pushing for. Many more EU proposals need to be subjected to this mechanism.

There are some less meaningful measures involved:

  • Only one of the 80 measures out of the total 450 scanned – the supply of ‘free’ fruit, vegetables and milk to schools – has been flagged up as an area better handled nationally or locally. In addition, the Commission has only committed to reviewing it, not scrapping it.
  • 24 proposals have been withdrawn because they have been superseded by other legislation, meaning the effect on the overall regulatory burden is neutral.
  • Some of the proposals will be withdrawn but new, “ambitious” versions will be re-tabled in the future – this includes the proposals on reducing air pollution – so it can hardly count as de-regulation.
  • Other proposals are already completely redundant, relating for example to the 2007-13 long term EU budget or Croatia’s accession to the EU.

Scrapping or revising existing laws

A further 79 measures  were identified for evaluation, amendment or repeal as part of the ongoing REFIT exercise. While the majority of the measures flagged up for repeal have as above been overtaken by new legislation, some of those flagged up for evaluation include some significant regulations and directive ranging from those dealing with CO2 emissions from light duty vehicles, social and employment and health and safety laws, chemicals and machinery standards, and public procurement.

Blocking would-be laws

As we’ve always argued, strengthening the filters at the earliest stages of EU law-making is absolutely vital – once a Commission proposal is tabled, it often takes on a life of its own. De Volkskrant reported earlier this week that Timmermans vetoed an astonishing 62 of a total of 64 proposals submitted by Energy Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, earning him the nickname ‘Dr. No’. If true, this really would represent a break with the Commission’s trigger-happy approach to new legislation.

It’s also encouraging that Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday appointed Edmund Stoiber – who’s spent years arguing for less EU red tape – as a special advisor. However, one proposal is conspicuously absent from the Commission’s work programme: despite some warm words about building a closer relationship with national parliaments, this is not followed up with concrete steps to boost their involvement.