The European Commission’s Better Regulation Agenda is wrongly perceived by the NGO community as purely business-driven, says Geneviève Pons-Deladrière, a former Commission official who is now heading the WWF’s EU office. She explains why, in a wide-ranging interview with EurActiv.
Frans Timmermans, the European Commission First Vice-President in charge of Better Regulation, is a bit like the bogeyman for the small bubble of Brussels-based NGOs.
The Dutchman’s focus on simplifying EU laws and “cutting red tape” for businesses is seen with deep suspicion in a community where obtaining more regulation from policymakers is often considered the Holy Grail.
When the Commission decided to withdraw 73 pending pieces of legislation as part of its Better Regulation Agenda in March this year, it drew a barrage of criticism from environmental NGOs, which denounced an attack on the EU’s commitment to environmental and social legislation.
But Geneviève Pons-Deladrière, the new director of the WWF’s European office in Brussels, thinks otherwise. To her, there is much more to Better Regulation than simply “cutting red tape”.
“What I believe is that NGOs can fully use the Better Regulation Agenda positively, for their benefit,” she told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
For instance, NGOs could make more efforts to ensure the full implementation of existing EU laws, by filing more complaints against the Commission or member states that fail to play by the rules, she said.
“Ensuring the implementation of environmental law also means taking the initiative to file complaints,” she pointed out.
As the former chair of the Commission’s special meetings in charge of launching infringement procedures, Pons would probably know what she is talking about. A French national, Pons-Deladrière was until now Honorary Director at the Commission, capping off a 22 year career which started in the Cabinet of President Jacques Delors.
Just before leaving the EU executive in 2011, she was heading a special unit in charge of ‘Simplification and Administrative Burden Reduction’ at the Commission’s Secretariat-General. In other words, she was in charge of Better Regulation. And already back in those days, a third of all infringement procedures were related to poor implementation of EU environmental legislation, she recalls. So making sure existing laws are fully implemented is essential, she stresses.
Pons-Deladrière actually goes further than that, suggesting a revision of the EU’s ageing body of environmental rules – often considered a taboo in the NGO world – would not necessarily be a bad thing.
“Today, this legislative body has grown, it has aged,” she notes, recalling that the EU’s first social and environmental laws were adopted in the 1980s, to balance the economic liberalism drive that came with the construction of the internal market. “We must therefore examine possible duplication or inconsistencies and adapt this body of legislation to the challenges of the modern world.”
“If that’s the Better Regulation approach, anyone can subscribe.”
What’s important, Pons-Deladrière stresses, is to steer society towards greater sustainability, whatever the tools being used. And the adoption of new laws may not always be the most efficient, she says.
“One must be pragmatic. I am a lawyer by training. I have practiced law and I know its limits. The law is not always the best way to solve a problem.”
In that sense, the nomination of Timmermans to coordinate between sometimes competing directorates at the Commission is “an excellent idea”, she claimed, saying the new “cluster” structure built around him is “particularly well suited” to the pursuit of sustainable development goals.
This pragmatic approach may not always serve her, however. People familiar with the circumstances of her appointment say the choice of Pons-Deladrière as the new head of the WWF EU Office raised eyebrows internally, because she lacks the experience of steering a big NGO, and came from a wholly different background.
But Pons-Deladrière has chosen to cultivate her difference.
“Inevitably, there will be a change in style,” she replies when asked about what distinguishes her from her predecessor, Tony Long, who founded the WWF’s EU office, and is now retiring. “But I will be myself, without trying to have a particular style. I am not trying to imitate anyone.”
Undoubtedly, Pons-Deladrière’s experience at the Commission will be her biggest strength, as she tries to fill the shoes of Tony Long. “Having been 22 years at the European Commission, clearly, can bring me knowledge of how the Commission’s internal workings. I know very well how the Commission works.”
If anything, her work under Edmund Stoiber, as part of the Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’ team taught her one lesson: environmental regulations are not red tape, contrary to what some business organisations claim.
“When I was responsible for the ‘cutting red tape’ programme, we did not touch the environment,” Pons-Deladrière said, “because we were aware that the environment meant nothing at all in terms of burden on business – no more than 0.6% of the (regulatory) burden.”
The new WWF EU chief likes to cite an OECD study, which found no correlation between the stringency of environmental rules and the economic costs resulting from their implementation. In fact, the impact on business may even be positive, depending on how the rules are implemented at the national level, she says, citing the Netherlands as a positive example.
“That’s one of the lessons of the Stoiber Group, which he often joked about: a state may turn a European law into something very complex and burdensome for companies, while another state will successfully apply the European text without burden.”
>> Read the full interview (in French)