Commission denies power grab claims over ‘Better Regulation’

Timmermans at his Strasbourg press conference today. [EBS]

The European Commission has denied claims that its plans to introduce expert panels to scrutinise changes to its legislation by the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers are an attempted power grab.

The Commission proposes bills, which are usually amended by the other two major EU institutions. Parliament and Council must then agree on an identical text before it becomes law.

As EURACTIV exclusively reported last month, the executive wants to introduce ad hoc panels of three experts, one appointed by each institution, to examine “substantial” amendments of its bills.

>>Read: Commission wants to vet changes to draft EU law

Campaigners such as Friends of the Earth Europe said, “This proposal is a huge power grab, where the Commission takes away power from Parliament and Council.”

The executive has a policy on not commenting on leaked documents. But documents published by the Commission today (19 May) specifically denied the power grab. They said the institutions would retain “full autonomy in deciding how to organise their work”.

“The Commission is not seeking to reduce the political scope of the Parliament or Council. It is merely asking them to consider the impact of any major amendments they propose,” the document reads.

The ad hoc panels are part of the Commission’s planned reforms of EU policymaking to boost competitiveness by removing unnecessary burdens on business, and improve the quality and the image of EU lawmaking at a time of rising Euroscepticism in Europe.

“All of the measures set out today are in full respect for the imperatives of the co-legislators in the European Parliament and Council,” the paper said. “These powers are clearly defined in the Treaties and the Commission is not seeking to change them.”

Few surprises

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans today (19 May) announced the “Better Regulation” strategy in a press conference that brought few surprises after a series of leaks.

In return for the Parliament and Council’s support for ‘Better Regulation’, the Commission is prepared in a new inter-institutional agreement, to give the co-legislators more influence over the drafting of new laws.

>>Read: Commission ready to give Parliament and Council more say over new laws

The College of Commissioners has now adopted the final strategy. According to the executive it will:

  • Increase transparency in the EU’s decision-making process.
  • Improve the quality of laws through more impact assessments and consultations.
  • Promote reviews and revamps of existing laws.
  • Turn the Commission’s Impact Assessment Board into an independent Regulatory Scrutiny Board, with half of members recruited from outside the executive. This is separate to the expert panels.

Negotiations on the inter-institutional deal will begin with the Council and Parliament, with the aim of reaching a deal by the end of the year. Recruitment for the external members of the Regulatory Scrutiny Board and the REFIT Platform will be launched by the end of June.

The REFIT Platform of experts from business, civil society, member state representatives and other stakeholders, will collect suggestions for reducing regulatory burden and present them to the Commission.

Top priority

Timmermans told reporters at the European Parliament in Strasbourg that Better Regulation was one of the Commission’s top priorities.

“We are listening to the concerns of citizens and businesses – especially SMEs – who worry that Brussels and its institutions don’t always deliver rules they can understand or apply,” he said.

“We want to restore their confidence in the EU’s ability to deliver high quality legislation,” he added, “We can do much better at EU lawmaking than we are today.”

But critics have accused the Commission of using “Better Regulation” as an excuse to pursue a big business deregulation agenda.

Such claims peaked after Timmermans announced the withdrawal and planned resubmission of the Circular Economy package of waste, incineration and recycling laws last December.

>>Read: Waste laws will be binned, despite protests

That was shortly after EURACTIV exclusively revealed that lobby organisation BusinessEurope had written to the Commission demanding the package be axed.

>>Read: Gender equality and environment laws on business lobby hit list

But Timmermans today promised “Better Regulation” would not drive down environmental or social standards.

“Better regulation is not about more or less rules EU rules, or undermining our high social and environmental standards, our health, or our fundamental rights,” he said.

It was instead about delivering on ambitious policy goals in the most efficient way.

Despite Timmermans’ repeated promises, more than 50 civil society organisations have joined forces to create a watchdog to protect the rights of citizens, workers and consumers.

The network was launched on Monday (18 May) and is concerned that the Better Regulation agenda will “weaken or undermine essential regulations and subordinate the public good to corporate interests”.

>>Read: NGOs launch watchdog to keep an eye on the Commission’s ‘Better Regulation’

Paul de Clerck, campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “These reforms are more about battering regulation than bettering it. The European Commission’s so-called ‘Better Regulation’ proposal is about introducing more and more barriers to prevent new environmental, labour and health and safety standards that protect citizens. The new initiatives proposed also risk weakening existing standards on food, chemicals and biodiversity.”

“The Commission is trying to grab power from democratically elected parliamentarians and give it to business-friendly experts. We have seen from experience that so-called independent advisors only look at costs for business and ignore benefits for society. Truly better regulation must protect everyday citizens, workers and our environment more, not less.”

BusinessEurope director general Markus J. Beyrer said, “Better regulation is essential to improve competitiveness, growth and employment. All EU institutions must work together to put better regulation at the centre of the political agenda. We welcome many of the initiatives set out in the new strategy, including better impact assessments throughout the legislative process, and more independent quality advice to improve EU laws.”

Jeremy Wates, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau, said: “This proposal is a bad deal for the European Parliament, European citizens and European democracy in general. In return for a vague promise of ‘taking into account suggestions to its work programme,’ the Commission wants the Parliament and national governments to sign up to President Juncker’s flawed political priorities and limit the their flexibility to amend Commission proposals through a top-heavy impact assessment procedure.”

“Juncker’s Political Guidelines do nothing to address environmental issues except climate change, and this deal would tie the Parliament and other EU institutions into them [...] "if the European Parliament and Council were to agree to top heavy impact assessment procedures reliant for approval on a new technocratic body with neither democratic accountability nor legitimacy, this would be a very bad day for democracy in Europe.”

Patrick Liébus, president of the European Builders' Confederation said, “Cutting red tape is essential to small businesses. Given their size, they have very few resources to cope with excessive burdens. Nevertheless, EBC strongly believes that simplification just cannot come at the expense of health and safety of workers and environmental concerns”.

ALDE president Guy Verhofstadt supports the Commission`s agenda. He said, "Better regulation often means doing things on a European level. Better to have one clear European rule replacing 28 different ones which often create bureaucratic hurdles for our businesses, citizens and researchers. Better one in and 28 out."

Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said: ““The ten Commission priorities announced last year underpinning this reform fail to live up to the enormous complexity of the environmental challenges now bearing down on the world and to put Europe on a path to clean technology-led, global competitiveness.

“The current scrutiny of the Birds and Habitats Directives under the Regulatory Fitness agenda (REFIT) will be an important litmus test of whether the European Commission is embarking on a better regulation agenda or rather a de-regulation drive in disguise. Just in the last week, over 100 environmental organisations have joined forces in Europe to stand their ground against any rolling-back of landmark nature protection laws in Europe.”

The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) director general Hubert Mandery said, “Creating a stable and predictable regulatory environment is key to stimulating investment, job creation and growth in Europe. Our industry is already involved in several initiatives of the European Commission to help make this work for our sector. We stand ready to cooperate further with the EU institutions in progressing the better regulation agenda.”

“Ensuring that EU legislation is well-designed, evidence-based and fit for purpose will ensure that policy measures can achieve their objectives without imposing disproportionate costs and burdens on businesses,” said Arnaldo Abruzzini, secretary general of EUROCHAMBRES, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“Our experience in the past – notably in relation to the SME Test – has shown a frequent gap between the Commission’s ambition and its delivery,” warned Mr Abruzzini. “We expect First Vice-President Frans Timmermans to ensure that this time the terms of the contract are met.”

Ariel Brunner, head of policy at BirdLife Europe, said, "Today’s 'better regulation' proposals are a clear attempt to force through an aggressive deregulation agenda, with environmental legislation in the cross hair. At the same time 100.000 citizens in just one week have already participated in the Consultation on the future of the EU Nature Directives, on, opposing any deregulation of ?nature protection. European citizens are sending a broader message; they want good, strong environmental legislation. The EU better start listening, if it is to retain citizens’ confidence".

Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) said, "I am in favour of efforts to improve legislation, but these proposals will make the legislative procedure longer, costlier and more bureaucratic.

“I am very sceptical about giving so-called experts a much bigger role in EU legislation. Impact assessments are not simply technical, but make political recommendations based on limited criteria, such as for example cost without considering social benefit.”

Gabi Zimmer, chair of the GUE/NGL in the European Parliament said, "The Commission has let the cat out of the bag. In future, Commission officials and accountants will take political decisions, not the EU's democratically-elected representatives. The Commission wants to determine on its own whether or not democratic regulations are effective for the internal market. It will even go so far as to let the Maternity Leave Directive, decided by the European Parliament, to be taken off the table completely."

Valeria Ronzitti, CEEP (European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services) general secretary said, "It is clear that 'Better regulation' cannot be achieved by the European Commission alone and has to receive a strong commitment from the co-legislators. The Communication on Better Regulation would only have a symbolic effect without the adoption of a new inter-institutional agreement.

“What is good on paper needs now to be implemented in practice, and CEEP will give a "vigilant support" to the package. We need to make sure it will translate in a more inclusive approach to EU policy making, notably by the involvement of EU social partners in the REFIT platform.”

Adrian Joyce, secretary general of EuroACE, said, "[Better Regulation] is an opportunity to create an ambitious and effective legislative frameork with which the energy efficiency in buildings sector can flourish."

Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, pledged to refocus the EU executive on the bigger political issues of the day and cut regulations seen as unnecessary or hampering business activity.

Juncker appointed his First Vice-President Frans Timmermans to a new role, watching over the subsidiarity principle, whereby the EU should only intervene where it can act more effectively than national or local governments.

The Council of the EU and European Parliament make amendments to draft law. The better regulation strategy calls for substantive amendment to be scrutinised by experts.

  • End of June: Recruitment for the external members of the Regulatory Scrutiny Board and the REFIT Platform.
  • End of 2015 : Deal on inter-institutional agreement

Subscribe to our newsletters