Auditors assess role of impact studies in EU decision-making

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Impact assessments have been "broadly effective" in supporting decision-making within the EU institutions, but have failed to take account of amendments made to legislation by the Parliament and member states, found a European Court of Auditors report published yesterday (28 September). 

Impact assessments have been "widely used within the EU institutions and effective in supporting decision-making," said Court of Auditors (ECA) member Henri Grethen, presenting the report in Brussels yesterday.

85% of the experts surveyed for the report agreed that the Commission’s impact assessment system is improving legislation effectively.

"But there are areas for improvement regarding the main procedures, as well as the content and presentation of the reports," Grethen said.

Impact assessments aim to contribute to the EU decision-making process by systematically collecting and analysing information on planned legislative interventions and estimating their likely impact on citizens and the economy.  

They seek to help the EU institutions involved in drawing up legislation to decide on the most appropriate way to address a particular problem.

"The Commission has made impact assessment an integral part of policy development and has used it to design its initiatives better," said Andreas Bolkart, a member of the audit team at the ECA, citing the first 'Roaming Regulation' as an example.

"The European Parliament and the Council found the Commission's impact assessment reports helpful when considering the [EU executive's] proposals," Bolkart added.

Shortcomings

However, the ECA official lamented that the Commission's impact assessments are not updated to take into account the Parliament and the Council's amendments, adding that the latter two institutions rarely carry out such assessments themselves.

"Impact assessments of the final, adopted version of the legislation are not carried out," Bolkart said. Indeed, "the estimated impacts of the final legislative act are, therefore, not known if there have been substantial amendments," the report itself states.

The European Commission said the ECA report confirmed that the impact assessment system is "of real value to EU decision-makers, is effective in raising the quality of proposals and represents international best practice in terms of transparency.

"The audit shows that the Commission has the right structures in place to deliver on its smart regulation agenda," the EU executive stated.

The Commission vowed to continue to improve impact assessments in line with the ECA's recommendations and pledged to continue to work with the Parliament and the Council "to help them to deliver on their commitments". 

MEP calls for reform

Meanwhile, Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht (European People's Party) – vice-chair of a special European Parliament committee on the post-2013 EU budget – yesterday called for impact assessments to be repeated once draft legislation has been amended.

"We want to make the EU more effective and results-oriented, and the impact assessments are very important for this. I will recommend [to the European Parliament] that we take on board the ECA's findings," Olbrycht said.

"We're making even more legislation under the co-decision procedure in the post-Lisbon era, so we want impact assessments before legislation and after amendments, as well as after [transposition into national law] to assess the results," he added.

"After Lisbon, as the European Parliament's importance grows, we need the same methodology to be applied to impact assessments on amended legislation. Otherwise we're analysing the ambitions of legislation, and not its consequences," the Polish MEP said.

The report, which covers the period 2003-2008, revealed that the Commission did not indicate in advance all the initiatives which were to undergo an impact assessment.

Meanwhile, "consultation with stakeholders was used widely for initial input but was not carried out on draft impact assessment reports," it found.

"The Commission's impact assessment reports generally provided a sound description of the problem at stake and the objectives pursued. However, the main results and messages of the reports are not easy to gather. Comparing the impacts of the various policy options presented in an impact assessment report is sometimes difficult," the ECA concluded.

Bolkart cited overly technical language, excessively lengthy documents and the lack of quality summaries among the main reasons for this.

The report urged the Commission to place more emphasis on policy implementation and prepare reports that facilitate the comparison of policy alternatives.

Auditors' report 'non-binding'

Asked whether he expected the European Court of Auditors' findings to be taken into account by the EU institutions, Bolkart said "they don't have to be implemented".

"It is up to the Commission to decide whether or not to take our recommendations into account," explained ECA member Grethen.

Asked how difficult it would be for the European Commission to act on the report's findings, Grethen admitted that the European Court of Auditors had not conducted an impact assessment on its own recommendations, but insisted that "they won't impose a huge burden on member states".

As for the cost of implementing the report's recommendations, Grethen said "without impact assessments, at first things would be cheaper, but later on they'd be much more expensive".

The Court of Auditors urged the Commission, the Parliament and the Council to consider the findings and recommendations in the report when revising inter-institutional agreements on better law-making and a common approach to impact assessment.

The European Commission said it would "shortly" adopt a communication on smart regulation outlining how "in practical terms" it will continue to provide a "highly effective and efficient EU regulatory framework in the coming years". 

"Better regulation aims to improve and simplify new and existing legislation and is the responsibility of all the EU institutions involved in the legislative process,"said Henri Grethen, a member of the European Court of Auditors.

"Impact assessments contribute to better regulation by systematically analysing information about planned European Union legislation and programmes and estimating their likely impact," as well as "providing a basis for deciding how to address policy challenges," said Grethen.

"We shouldn't forget that we’re in the post-Lisbon [Treaty] era and we have to implement a new inter-institutional agreement. These talks should re-define the scope of impact assessments," said Polish MEP Jan Olbrycht (European People's Party), vice-chair of a special European Parliament committee on the post-2013 EU budget.

"The whole process should be more transparent and written in a clearer manner," Olbrycht said. "I think the European Parliament will support the ECA's findings and put them into practice," he added.

Welcoming the report's findings, the European Commission said in a statement that "smart regulation is one of the Commission’s key political priorities under President Barroso's direct authority," expressing delight that the European Court of Auditors had "confirmed that the Commission's impact assessment system has been effective in supporting decision-making within the EU institutions".

The Commission was "particularly pleased" that the independent quality control body it introduced – the Impact Assessment Board – was recognised by the ECA as "raising the quality of analysis".

Impact assessments are one of the cornerstones of the European Commission's 'Better Regulation' policy, which was introduced by José Manuel Barroso during his first term at the EU executive's helm.

The assessments aim "to provide evidence for political decision-making and to ensure that all relevant policy options are considered when addressing any given problem," the Commission explains.

By the end of August 2010, the EU executive had conducted 520 impact assessments.

The European Court of Auditors decided to audit the Commission’s impact assessment system in 2008. The audit, which began in June 2008 and was conducted by the Court in conjunction with leading international experts on better regulation, examined over 100 impact assessments carried out between 2003-2008 and involved interviewing 190 people.  

Simplifying and improving the EU regulatory environment was one of the priorities of the first Barroso Commission. It was a key element of the Lisbon Strategy and the Small Business Act (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

  • By end 2010: Commission to adopt communication on smart regulation.

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