Science Business: EU announces two scrutiny bodies to tackle red tape
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A new push to cool what critics perceive as the over-active Brussels legislative machine is welcomed by industry, but denounced by NGOs as a bonfire of standards

The European Commission is to beef up its capacity to measure if and by how much EU legislation will burden small businesses, with a new seven-member board to vet and stress-test plans for new legislation and powers to carry out retrospective evaluations of existing rules.

“Today, some of the toughest criticism of the EU comes from SMEs,” said Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans announcing the plan. “Down the road I want to hear SMEs say, ‘the boys and girls of Brussels are doing it better now’.”

“The idea is good,” said Markus Pieper, centre-right politician and chair of a European Parliament working group called the SME Circle. “But it can make an impact only if the board is 100 per cent independent, like similar institutions in Germany and the UK, and has the power to stop legislative proposals.”

A fully independent panel, however, is not on the menu. The new board will have three Commission officials, three external members and a chair, who will be the Commission’s deputy director-general responsible for EU’s push for ‘Better Regulation’.

In addition, Timmermans announced the formation of Regulatory Fitness and Performance, or Refit, a programme to cut red tape and simplify EU law. A group of experts from business and civil society and all 28 EU member states will provide advice and a Refit website with a “Lighten the Load — Have Your Say” feature, will encourage people to, “Tell us what you find irritating, burdensome, or in need of improvement.”

Attempts to cut EU red tape are nothing new of course. A stress-test last June for example singled out 53 initiatives that should be scrapped. What appears different now is the vim with which the Commission is approaching the task. Timmermans, in his role as legislative gatekeeper, has not been shy of wielding the scissors and the new Commission is certainly cutting back on legislation, with only 23 legislative initiatives planned for this year, compared to 100 per year under the previous Barosso Commission.

Timmermans acknowledged this is part of a broader effort to quell critics who say Brussels is an overactive machine. “Eurosceptics are not wrong by definition. Eurosceptics annoy me because they are sometimes right. And when they are right we have to answer to them,” he said.

More input from the public 

Timmermans said there will be a broader effort to open up the legislative process. “[The new scheme] will allow everyone to see what the cooks are doing in the kitchen,” he noted.

The period where the Commission invites comment from the public will be extended. Luc Hendrickx, director of enterprise policy and external relations with the Brussels-based European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, applauded the move. “Better consultation leads to better implementation of laws and more acceptance,” he said. Business Europe, an industry lobby, also welcomed the initiative.

Under the new plan, interested organisations will also be consulted after new laws have been adopted, to check how well they are working.

For the first time, certain clauses which provide greater detail on how to put a new law into practice will be opened up to the public.

However, the proposed window of four weeks for public comments is not long enough, according to the European Small Business Alliance which said, “Four weeks is not a lot of time to respond and it will be very difficult to consult members within this short time frame.”

For others, allowing interested parties longer to comment would too time-consuming. The European Parliament’s Green group, was strongly critical of the announcement, releasing a statement that said the move “must not lead to paralysis by analysis.”

A de-regulation coup

Non-governmental bodies (NGOs) were sceptical , saying the Commission’s red tape bonfire will lead to falling standards for environment and health or safety-related laws.

For NGOs, the term red tape is often misleading or counter-productive. While European rules on light bulbs and vacuum cleaners are characterised by some corporates as classic Brussels red tape, NGOs point to the positive impact these laws have on annual energy savings.

In advance of the announcement more than 50 groups comprising a wide range of public interest groups including consumer, environmental, development, financial, social, and public health organisations and trade unions, said they are forming the ‘Better Regulation Watchdog’.

“What the European Commission presents as a ‘better regulation’ agenda is in reality all about deregulation. In response to strong business lobbying, the Commission is planning to weaken, delay and scrap environmental standards,” said Magda Stoczkiewicz, director of Friends of the Earth Europe, one of the watchdog’s members.

Timmermans stressed this is not the intention. “There’s not a single European standard we intend to lower with this agenda,” he said.

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