Regulatory Scrutiny Board Conference on EU Regulatory Scrutiny, 20 March 2017

Opening Remarks by the European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans

It is a real pleasure to open this Conference on EU Regulatory Scrutiny. I do not see this as a one-off event but rather as the beginning of series of regular gatherings among key players and stakeholders in the European world of better regulation.

We need this. We need an occasion where we can look at the state of play, share experiences and debate current and future challenges among ourselves. As actors in the better regulation world rather than as representatives of specific institutional, national and political interests. For the latter, there are other fora, other mechanisms and other moments.

The Regulatory Scrutiny Board is perfectly placed to develop this type of initiative thanks to its strengthened independence, its increased technical capacity and – I hope – its rising reputation. But also thanks to the way it uniquely puts together the expertise in EU policy-making of those members coming from within the Commission with the specialized skills of those members that were externally recruited.

This mix of skills is very important and it is one example of the balance which I believe is needed for effective and independent better regulation processes. Balance between:

  • Looking at policy design and at its implementation;
  • Between pursuing benefits and reducing burdens;
  • Between listening to all stakeholders and making timely political choices that inevitably will displease some;
  • Balance between the ambition of having a proper evidence base and the recognition of the limits of our analysis
  • Balance in the distribution of tasks across institutional actors.

Without such a balance, there can be no long term success for our better regulation agenda.

And this cannot be about the quick wins, or the radical changes high on appearance and low on impacts, the simplifying statistics that hide the patchwork of reality. This is about changing incentives and attitudes. This is about ensuring that the system itself has changed, and doesn't need constant policing.

That is why, over the past two years we have worked hard to embed better regulation into the DNA of the European Commission, installing a priority driven, evidence-based, disciplined, transparent and above all inclusive policy process. The aim is to make sure we deliver high quality policy proposals that remove obstacles to growth and foster innovation, proposals that minimise regulatory costs while promoting social and environmental sustainability.

This is why this Commission has changed its way of working, focussing on those things that need to be done at the level of the Union and making sure that they are done well. Ambitious when it needs to be and humble when it can.  

This has required focussed and forceful political leadership coupled with changes in the structure of the Commission itself and in its working methods. All this complemented by the extensive set of measures we took in our Better Regulation package of May 2015. 

I do not think I need to spend time describing in details this package and its implementation. As I said, we have other tools and other occasions to do so.

But am I satisfied about the results so far? My honest answer would be "YES BUT".

I am satisfied because I see the efforts made. And I do see the gains. Above all, perhaps, I see the losses avoided that the broader public does not see. I see the international comparison such as those of the OECD which rank our system among the best in the world. And so I know that while we need to learn from others, we cannot be given lessons to.

I am satisfied because I see how the Juncker Commission is managing to bring together political and better regulation concerns in a manner which was not possible before.

It is not easy and it is not always to everyone’s liking but I see it happening:

  • When we manage to bridge the gap between perception and facts and give new political impetus and ownership to initiatives like eco-design;
  • When we defy biased expectations of foregone conclusions and manage to have a real debate over existing legislation such as the one we had on the Natura regulations;
  • When we make sure that better regulation supports and does not impair the delivery of those regulatory proposals needed to pursue our ten priorities.

I am satisfied because I see the efforts put in by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board. I see how they are working to support our agenda downstream and upstream to further improve the quality of our evaluation and impact assessments.

I see how our methodological guidance is better but how we need to keep working on it, learning from our experiences, simplifying, better assessing impacts like those on innovation and that is why we will soon come foward with an upgraded toolbox for better regulation.

I also see how we are building upon our inter-institutional agreement on better law-making, stepping up its monitoring and its implementation. I see the novel joint work with Parliament and Council to deliver on commonly agreed priority files.

I see the progress being made by the other institutions in assessing the impacts of their decisions but I also see how we are still far, far, from a genuine extension of better regulation across all actors and phases in the policy cycle.

I see the progress made in the way we interact with stakeholders:

  • More than 100 open consultations annually becoming the norm for all major initiatives and evaluations;
  • Nearly thirty thousand replies to the Commission's proposal on firearms – made possible by our new feedback mechanism on Commission legislative proposals
  • Public feedback on draft implementing and delegated acts influencing important decisions such as those on endocrine disruptors and roaming rates – decisions which once would have readily been labelled as technocratic, undemocratic and non-transparent.
  • For every time I see an uproar from stakeholders on a Commission proposal, I see a need to do betterbut also a ringing validation of our decision to open up our policy process.

But I also see how stakeholders still do not make the most of the new consultation opportunities offered to them. And I know how frequently they complain about the bias in our questions and the limited feedback they receive. I read the opinion of the REFIT platform stakeholder group on consultations. So I know we need to improve further and we will.  

And since I mention it, let me also stress how much I see and appreciate the hard work put in by the members of the REFIT platform to come to an agreed view across different interests and points of view. I saw to it that their first 22 opinions are being followed up in our 2017 work programme. And I look forward to the ones under preparations. But I also see how we - in the Commission but also in the other European institutions and in Member States - need to make sure this work translates into actual improvements.

I see the more than 150 REFIT initiatives included in this Commission's work programmes so far. I see our decision to make sure all revisions of existing legislation are considered a REFIT action in principle and more than one hundred proposals identified for withdrawal and several more for repeal.

But I also see how difficult it is to make sure simplification opportunities are systematically sought out in a bureaucratic and political environment that continues to favour proposing the new over revising the old, settling for the devil one knows rather than daring to change. And therefore we will continue to work at this issue:

  • By laying the foundation to collect the necessary information, working with the co-legislators to systematically include monitoring and evaluation provisions in all basic acts, and with the RSB to improve our evaluations;
  • By facilitating a better identification of gold-plating and looking closer at implementation and enforcement to disentangle where burdens come from;
  • By assessing the feasibility of setting objectives to reduce the burdens from EU law in key economic sectors as we committed to do in our Inter-Institutional Agreement.

Reflections on this are on-going along with the launch of work for the second related commitment under the IIA, namely the first Annual Burden Survey. Our aim is to present the survey, our feasibility assessment and a revamped REFIT scoreboard after the summer.

Some things, however, are already clear:

  • This is not about deregulation. This is about better regulation. I believe we have amply disproved those who criticized us of harbouring a secret radical neo-liberal agenda. I'm proud of that and there are views in the European Parliament that some things have really changed. But the Commission does want to deliver simpler, more modern and less costly legislation because that can better deliver our shared societal objectives. Targets must be assessed, as a possible tool among many, within this framework and not as self-standing objectives.
  • Targets cannot be a Commission-only endeavour. It would make little sense from an institutional and effectiveness point of view. A joint effort between the European Parliament, the Council, the Member States and the Commission would be needed if real benefits are to be delivered to the businesses, SMEs and public authorities. But let me stress once again my commitment to cutting red tape for SMEs. That is not a deregulation agenda but a simplification and better regulation agenda.
  • All inputs on this are welcome, starting from the study that I know the National Regulatory Watchdogs have commissioned and that I will look at with great interest.

So, overall, I am satisfied but not entirely so. Because one can always do better and because there are clearly areas where we need to do better. Better regulation policy should not escape a taste of its own medicine. We are therefore working to set up a proper monitoring framework and envisage carrying out a proper review in 2018.   

Let me then conclude by placing better regulation in the wider political context. Success obviously depends upon getting technicalities right but we should never forget what the bigger picture and the ultimate objectives are, especially in a rapidly changing world as today's. 

We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution which leads to tectonic changes in the world's structures and its economy and we all know that when you have tectonic movements, earthquakes might arise as we have seen in politics in many countries.

This Commission has come into office at a very particular time in the history of European integration. A time of crisis and disillusionment in the tangible benefits of the European project. Only by delivering the results we can deliver at the EU level, we can win back our citizens' trust in this unique project.

This is why the Juncker Commission started from the very beginning to do things differently. This is why a few weeks ago President Juncker and I put on the table our White Paper on the future of Europe. This is of course also why we put better regulation at the heart of our daily work from the very beginning. This is why we have delivered on our promise to be big on big things and small and small things.

But a new crisis has come along. A crisis that cuts much closer to the raison d'être of better regulation: the crisis of evidence and facts: 

  • We live in a world where the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency does not "believe" in the role played by CO2 in global warming and he says so publicly.

  • We live in a world where politicians, media and bureaucrats not only tell lies – admittingly not a rare occurrence – but simply do not care about being caught.

  • We live in a world where a passionate supporter of Wilders told me "I know what he says is not true but he is perfectly right".

This may sound funny but there is a profound element that affects our society. It has to do with it the way we have developed as individuals. Our egos have become so big that feelings are more important than facts so that if I feel something but the facts do not corroborate my feelings, then the facts must be wrong. Think about that! In the way we raise our children, in the way we communicate, in the way we treat our media with more respect as they have now understood they need to treat facts with more respect.

That you cannot put facts and opinions on the same level. That you cannot just allow people to say "if I believe the world is flat, then it might be flat. It is your opinion that world is round but mine is that it is flat. It's my opinion against your opinion." I believe we do not want to go that way, because we may fall off the edge.

What role is there for evaluations and impact assessments in such a world?  What role for regulatory scrutiny authorities?

What role for scientific findings in a world where people “have had enough of experts” – as in the Brexit campaign - and electoral majorities are seen as the sole source of authority across all policy fields?

What do we communicate to a government that says stop whining about the rule of law. We have won the election so we can do whatever we like. 

What role for net cost benefits figures, burden targets, benefits estimates in a world where 68% of Trump’ supporters distrust the economic data published by the federal government? Where statistics and analysis are seen as lies only because they are not the unquestionable truth we sometimes make them out to be?   

These are very important questions for the relevance and even more so the uptake of any better regulation system, no matter how perfect any such system may be.     

The answer of course cannot be to ditch evidence based policy making and the scrutiny and analytic framework that goes with it. Quite to the contrary.

But we also need to understand that we cannot simply answer a demand for a politics of emotions with a strengthened politics of facts. And as we have learned in the EU, if you think you can approach everything with the head instead that from the heart, you end up in the underbelly.

I believe we need to find a better way to communicate about better regulation. I am surely not alone in being frustrated by the difficulty of demonstrating better regulation's results - results which are by their very nature indirect and hard to attribute beyond doubt.

We need the analysis, we need the rigour, we need the complexity and we need the scientific language. But we need to tie this in with different narratives. Neither the black box of the 300 pages impact assessment nor the snazzy pictures on the one pager any longer talk to the sceptical citizens.

I believe we also need to be more courageous. Let's stand by our evidence-based methods. Let's not hide behind them. We cannot, for instance, reap the benefits of our expert-based system for implementing acts if we run away from the ensuing political responsibility. That is why the Commission recently proposed changes to our "Comitology regulation" - to avoid that end result that no one wants: the public's loss of faith in in our systems and institutions. Saying no one wants this but we must have it because the rules say so? That is  death in politics.

I believe we need to improve our supply of better regulation outputs but we also need to think more about the demand for such outputs. The demand from our actual clients and not simply society as an abstract concept: 

  • From the policy-maker looking for feasible solutions - not procedural hoops to jump through;
  • From the stakeholders wanting to be heard - not given opportunities to vent;
  • From the entrepreneurs wanting to comply because they understand why, not because they are forced to.

I believe we should be persistent in our criticisms and peer-scrutiny. But this is not easy because we also need some caution. When we scrutinize the value of our evidence and the rigour of our analysis, let's be constructive as the RSB has always been, not scathingly destructive and looking for the headlines as some at times have been.

All opinions are of course legitimate but let not the search for a non-existent world of truth end up helping the merchants of the post-truth world.

There are no facts, only interpretations, Nietzsche famously said. But be aware of the mother of all falsehood: the belief that all interpretations are equal, that the value of any narrative only rests in the numbers and power of its proponents and not also on the soundness and coherence of its supporting arguments. Let's hear through the ages: Galileo's "eppur si muove". Even if it is not what you want to hear but is the truth: let's say it.

Some interpretations are better than others and regulatory scrutiny is there to help us discriminate. Studies show that the sceptical consumers of alternative news are the most responsive to the injection of false claims. Making sure our rules are evidence-based, leaner and effective is thus also about protecting and freeing people from myths.

Yes, you heard it. Better Regulation is ultimately about protection and freedom. So strengthening our Better Regulation agenda has never been more urgent than today. And I propose to you that we do it together and I propose to you that we never lose track of what we are doing as part of a much wider societal development to counter alternative facts. Thank you very much for your attention.