Eurosceptics across the continent cite red tape as an example of bureaucratic waste. That is now also the view in Brussels where officials have moved to overhaul their rule-making procedures, promising new safeguards to prevent useless laws ending up on the statute books.
The Better Regulation plans unveiled by the European Commission aim to prune or put off pointless proposals for legislation before they progress through the EU’s complicated machinery. Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said the plans would change both what the EU does and how it does it.
“We are listening to the concerns of citizens and businesses who worry that Brussels and its institutions don’t always deliver rules they can understand or apply,” he said. “We must be honest about what works and what doesn’t.”
Mr Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, has already taken an axe to 80 planned Commission policies this year: only 23 laws will be proposed, compared to an average annual rate of 130 over the previous five years. The new plans will reinforce the Commission’s practice of drawing up “impact assessments” for new legislation, which examine why they are needed and what the expected effects might be.
Assessments will now be made by a new seven-member Regulatory Scrutiny Board to see if decisions are well-informed and evidence-based. The board would have to clear any draft initiative before launching the policy work between departments.
Another body will be set up to focus on the Commission’s regulatory fitness and performance programme (REFIT) to simplify EU law. Chaired by Mr Timmermans, this will collect feedback on planned rules, looking at the potential burden on small and medium-sized business.
Mr Timmermans is expected to be the main EU mediator with the British government in the negotiations ahead of the in/out referendum in 2017. He is seen as sympathetic to Prime Minister David Cameron’s reform agenda, including his concerns about excessive bureaucracy.
The new measures are expected to help Mr Cameron show how Brussels is changing in line with British concerns, according to Peter Wilding, director of the cross-party pro-EU membership organisation, British Influence.
“Britain has for many years said we need better regulation,” he said. “The Commission is not resisting, it is encouraging. It has ensured, through measures like the impact assessment, that stupid laws do not make it through. What Cameron has to do now is shout from the rooftops that you have to be in Europe to win.”
EU officials admit that last year’s European Parliament elections – which saw a surge in support for fringe and anti-EU parties – revealed widespread concerns about EU meddling in daily lives.
Simon Tilford, deputy director of London-based think-tank, the Centre for European Reform, said the EU measures should strengthen Mr Cameron’s hand. “If Cameron can spin it as a British success, it will help him face down the inevitable criticism he will face from his Eurosceptic backbenchers. However, the UK is not alone in seeking simpler regulation – Germany, the Netherlands and others also want it.”
NGOs have raised concerns about the plans, saying they could endanger social and environmental standards.
Banning refillable jugs for olive oil
EU officials said in 2013 that tamper-proof packaging would prevent restaurants switching virgin oil for cheap alternatives. The idea was hastily scrapped after widespread ridicule.
Banning hairdressers from wearing high-heels and jewellery
Briefly considered in 2012, but no new rules were proposed.
Banning MRI scanners
A zealously drafted directive on radiation exposure would have forced clinics to scrap the life-saving scanners.
Banning pipe organs
A directive designed to remove hazardous metals used in computers and mobile phones would have stopped pipe organs in churches being built, because of their lead content.