Brussels, 29 april 2019
Good morning. Great to see all of you here. We have a long day ahead but there is a lot to discuss and I am really excited about this because many of the things you are going to discuss are going to help us to do a better job – also in the future.
So, four years ago, we laid out how better regulation was going to contribute to better results under the Juncker Commission. Over the last few months, we consulted widely within and outside the European institutions, asking what we did right and what we need to do better. Two weeks ago, we published the results of this stocktaking exercise.
The outcome is clear. While the views of individual stakeholders on specific components of our policy may vary – and they are often qualified and, at times, rather critical – there is a widespread recognition that we have achieved real progress. There is also a clear call on us to sustain our commitment and have further progress.
But, do not get me wrong. We are not here today for some sort of self-congratulatory exercise. The objective of this conference is to take stock of both the plusses and the minuses. Above all, I wish to have a debate on whether better regulation still matters, and what can be done to consolidate it and keep it useful for tomorrow’s world.
Better regulation efforts began to take shape within the European Commission already nearly two decades ago on the back of the desire for better European governance and for anchoring sustainable development in the Union’s policy-making.
We have travelled a long way since then. While at the start, we were importing and adapting practices developed in other constituencies, today the OECD now ranks us firmly among the global leaders on better regulation.
Yet, over the same period, the world has changed even more and with it the significance and role of better regulation policy, within the EU as well.
The challenge we faced at the beginning of this College’s mandate was not thus just to make better regulation fitter for purpose but also to keep it fit for purpose in a changing environment. The same will be true, I believe, for the next College.
Let me start then with the specific challenges we faced at the beginning of the Juncker Commission and then conclude with what I think are the most relevant lessons for the future.
We came into office at a very particular time for European integration. A time of doubts and questions about its benefits. Only by delivering the results our citizens expected from the EU, could we win back their trust. Hence, a clear need for the Union to engage more fully with its citizens. To be more transparent. To justify why it needed to act. To act only when it needed to. And finally, to act well, based on the best available evidence.
This is why we had to reinvigorate the Commission's better regulation policy but also do it as part of a priority to enhance democratic change.
The Commission’s structure and working methods were modified. The position I had the honour to take up and still hold today was created. A comprehensive set of far-reaching measures were adopted.
First, we redoubled our efforts to make the EU more democratic and closer to its citizens, its entrepreneurs, its workers, its local public authorities. In other words, closer to those who know where EU rules may be needed or not and where they may be working or not.
To this end, we sought greater openness and transparency in policy-making:
- Consulting more and more systematically;
- Investing greater resources in reaching out to stakeholders in their national language;
- Opening up the policy process to feedback at every stage and establishing the “Have your say” web-portal.
On this centralised entry point, all stakeholders can now, for the first time provide comments on a wide swath of draft delegated and implementing acts.
I am convinced time will show the impact of this change to be momentous: no more will stakeholders be blindsided by often-crucial implementing details without having had a chance to make their voices heard.
But, strengthening your voice has only been and could only be part of our answer. We also had to restore citizens' confidence in the Union's capacity to deliver what really matters to them.
Doing so required two steps. First, changing the focus of what we do and then doing it efficiently.
On the first point, better regulation has played a key role by explicitly supporting targeting EU efforts where they add value to national endeavours. We thus:
- Identified a narrow set of political priorities acting as the anchors of tightly focussed annual work plans;
- We mainstreamed the REFIT programme and established the REFIT Platform. Our focus on regulatory fitness has delivered more than 150 new initiatives simplifying legislation. The Platforms - the members of which I really want to thank warmly for the hard work they have done – processed nearly 700 stakeholders’ submissions and delivered 89 opinions. Annual burden surveys now report on all related Commission activities.
But, when we needed to act, we needed to do it well. For this, political decisions needed to be informed by the best available evidence on the problems to be solved, the lessons of the past, and the economic, social and environmental pros and cons of the alternative policy options. Thus, we have:
- Further improved our impact assessments;
- We turned the “evaluate first principle” into reality: in seven times out of ten when proposing to revise legislation we were able to rely on an evaluation – this is no mean feat given the time lag involved.
- We also set rigorous quality standards by relying on a newly established Regulatory Scrutiny Board that offered greater assurances of independence, an enlarged scope of scrutiny and a widened expertise in its now permanent membership. I mean, working on this full hours.
And I would also like to use this occasion to thank all the Board’s members for the really excellent work they have been carrying out. They rapidly gained a strong reputation for credibility and that is not an easy task, and I want to commend them for having successfully managed to achieve this even though they have sometimes made my life very difficult, indeed, it was for a good course and I think they should continue.
Finally, we did not stop with the Commission. To deliver fully, better regulation efforts cannot be a Commission endeavour only. This is why we negotiated a new interinstitutional agreement with the co-legislators. An ad-hoc task force I had the honour of chairing also looked at ways to better assess and respect subsidiarity and proportionality. So the Commission committed to following up the task force’s recommendations.
The only regret I frankly have on the interinstitutional agreement is that we could not agree with the co-legislators to have an impact assessment of the final result of negotiations when that substantially deviates from the proposal of the Commission. So now we have impact assessments of a proposal, but if the final result deviates from that substantially we do not have an impact assessment and I would have liked the other two institutions to commit to that. I think that would have been really an improvement and this is something we have to work on. Perhaps we can convince them in the next five years.
So, where are we after four years? Allow me to summarize the richness of the results of our stocktaking rather brutally.
Do our better regulation tools work? Yes. Are they fit for purpose? Yes. Are they considered useful? Yes.
But also, do our better regulation tools work as well as they should? No. Will they be fit for purpose if left unchanged? No. Do they always provide the information one seeks from them? No.
I hope today’s conference will address the second set of answers while taking into due account the first. To this end, we have organised panels dealing with those issues where the opportunity and need for further progress is more evident.
First, engaging with interested parties. Consultation and transparency are the areas where we progressed most, according to most. However, most people also identified these very same areas as the priority for future progress.
Second, the quality, scope, timeliness and availability of the analyses informing policy-making. How to ensure them and how can scrutiny help?
Third, how to deal with better regulation principles throughout the policy cycle if various actors have various responsibilities at various stages? In other words, how can we collectively deliver real results on the ground and avoid unwittingly adding unwarranted layers of regulatory complexity?
I will let the experts in the panels discuss these questions. Allow me, however, to tell you what I personally consider important for the future evolution of better regulation.
The first point to make refers to the persisting importance of better regulation policy itself. The first Communication on better law-making, back in 2001, referred to an ethical requirement for transparency, clarity and willingness to stand up to scrutiny. That “ethical” necessity for evidence-based participatory policy-making is as strong today as it was then.
This may seem a foregone conclusion to an audience like you but it is not that foregone at all. Just ask yourself:
Is there still a role for better regulation in a post-fact world? Is there still a role in a world that sees the return of politics after what some wrongly thought was the end of history? Is there still a role in a world where electoral majorities at times turn into dictatorships of the majority?
Coming closer to “home”, is there still a role for better regulation in a more political Commission?
My answer? Not just there is still a role but it is even a more important one.
First, the world is too complex to find good solutions without looking at the evidence in a structured and comprehensive way.
Second, in a post-fact world, where disinformation, social media echo chambers and outright propaganda combine to undermine the fabric of democratic debate and scientific authority, evidence-based policymaking is clearly a key imperative for the future.
In the age of fake news, there is a fashionable belief laying waste to political discourse everywhere: the belief that all interpretations are equal, that the value of any narrative rests in the numbers and power of its proponents and not on the soundness and coherence of its supporting arguments. They may be facts but I do not believe them so I will disregard them. That is an attitude we cannot afford in this society.
But some interpretations are better than others and better regulation with its formal procedures, consultation mechanisms and independent scrutiny bodies helps us discriminate.
Let us hear through the ages Galileo's "eppur si muove". Even if it is not what you want to hear but it is the truth: let us say it. Studies show that the sceptical consumers of alternative news are the most responsive to the injection of false claims. Today, more than ever, therefore, making sure our rules are evidence-based, leaner and effective is also about protecting and freeing people from myths. This is an age where there is a high risk of obscurantism, look at the anti-vaxxers movement. It is not just that we should protect the integrity of scientific facts. We should protect the integrity of facts per se.
And, in this context, let us look at two contrasting myths:
- One sees better regulation as a hollow policy only there to provide ex post justifications for political choices;
- The other instead sees better regulation as an all-determining policy that hollows out political choices, a technocratic tool pre-emptying democratic choices.
Both interpretations are completely wrong.
Better regulation processes aim to inform politicians' choices. They do not, and should not, predetermine them. You can still make another choice but on the basis of fact and then you could also explain why you make that different choice and be accountable to that different choice.
Better regulation informs final choices but these are also influenced by many other factors and that is absolutely legitimate in a democracy.
I can talk here from my personal experience.
When I brought forward, in the last four years specific proposals, I often reap the fruits of the seeds I planted as Better Regulation Commissioner. I was certainly not spared my share of negative opinions from the Regulatory Scrutiny Board and had to go back to the drawing board reconsidering my initial views and preferences.
One of the most popular pieces of legislation of this Commission is the plastic strategy, but we had to go back to the drawing board several times because the Regulatory Scrutiny Board said the analysis was not good enough. And now, I think we have high quality legislation that is admired across the world and takes us forward in reducing the environment impact of single use plastics and creating a circular economy for plastics.
Anyway, this means that better regulation does not hollow out political choices. On the contrary, it fills them with greater legitimacy and accountability because:
- It anchors public debates and political choices on facts and evidence – an invaluable counterweight to the power of raw politics and numbers.
- It requires the justification of political choices against the consideration of alternative options – a key element for enhanced legitimacy and accountability. Just like the core tenet of liberal democracies lies in the protection of minorities rather than in the exertion of power or majorities, so the core principle of better regulation rests in the consideration of alternatives rather than in the choice of a preferred option.
- And better regulation offers ways to engage society pro-actively in all its components – to advance the agenda of transparency and openness. Stakeholders will more likely accept new policies and implement them correctly if they were involved in an open and transparent process where their views and data have been considered seriously (even if they were not ultimately taken on board).
I believe therefore that better regulation is very much needed today and will be very much needed tomorrow. And I believe it was and will be a necessary complement to a more political Commission.
What should then be the key features of a future better regulation policy? I think it should be balanced, self-policing, positive and shared. Let me conclude by looking at each in turn.
First, balance. We have worked hard throughout this mandate to dispel the view that better regulation was really about deregulation, systematically favouring some stakeholders over others, ignoring important impacts, and really was only to serve the interests of one Member State. The one that is departing. Now that was better regulation and it certainly was not a big success, because they are departing.
But I think we have disproved that by continuing on this path.
More seriously, I think we defied the expectations that our better regulation tools have led to foregone conclusions. Look, for instance, at the real debate we had over the Natura regulations following their evaluation. What would the outcome have been in the absence of better regulation?
The myth was that everybody wanted to get rid of this, that this was preventing building houses, building roads, this was a big nuisance, and then what came out of the public consultations was the absolute opposite. There was a strong support for this nature regulation, that people wanted it, yes, in part amended, but reinforced, certainly not abolished. And this strengthened the hand of those within the Commission who believed that this was the right way forward, and it also led to a much more positive debate in the European Parliament and in national Parliaments.
We showed, I think, that we would not refrain from regulating when we needed to, as we did, for instance, with our plastic strategy. You know, as I said, when I started three years ago with a plastics strategy, people also inside the Commission were saying “Are you absolutely bonkers? Banning plastic straws, is that being big on big things?” Well, this is a good idea that has come to fruition. There is a lot of public support for it and it is not a small thing. It is a big thing. If, by this legislation at EU level, we can reduce what is 70% of the litter ending up in our marine environment, we really do something that shows leadership in the world, and it helps our industries to adapt. It shows the way to the future and it is something that will attract attention from across the world because everyone is grabbling with this issue. So, you know, it turned out to be one of the most popular things we did, and we did it very quickly – within one year, which is lightning speed in Europe. We got this legislation adopted by the co-legislators.
Anyway, we also looked for unnecessary burdens and cut them whenever this would not impair reaching a legislation’s goal. And we did this based on evidence, involving stakeholders, with the valuable help of the REFIT Platform and avoiding the deregulatory risks implied by the target-based mechanisms some pushed for us to adopt.
Just a brief word on these targets. With some exceptions, in some countries where people have worked a long time with better regulation, they are now coming to the conclusion that you should have qualitative targets rather than quantitative targets. This is also something that came out strongly from the task force on subsidiarity. So the problem is not that Europe legislates. The problem is not that Europe legislates in many fields. The problem is the density of the legislation and the complexity of the legislation that creates problems in the real world, and that is what we need to look at. The conclusions of the REFIT-platform and of the task force converge on this.
So, if then somebody comes up with a proposal to say “I will make sure we have 1000 less laws in Europe”, I wonder what the qualitative basis for this assessment is and then which 1000 laws? Are you then going to lower standards, social standards, environmental standards, and what does it say about the quality? This reminds me of Milos Forman’s great work “Amadeus” when after the first performance of “Die Entführing aus dem Serail” Mozart asks the Emperor “Did you like my opera?” and the Emperor says “Yes, yes, but too many notes.” And then Mozart asks “Your Majesty, which notes would you like me to remove?”
This is what I have been asking Member States in the task force and within better regulation groups now for five years, and I did it as a Minister in my own country before. Which laws would you like us to remove? And even those Member States who are most forceful in saying we want Europe to give back competences, never came up with real substantial examples. They came up with small things. What they concluded – alongside our stakeholders and industries – is that we need consistency, we need fact-based decision-making and we need to do something about the complexity, which is too much.
And then of course, I always address the issue of gold plating. And here again, let us be very clear, Member States have the right to add on to legislation. I do not dispute that right but they have the obligation to show that they are the ones adding on legislation, and that it is not something the European Union asked of them. Transparency, here again, is something we need to look for.
Anyway, I think to remain successful, we must ensure better regulation reflexes are further ingrained in the EU institutional machinery. I already mentioned, what I would like to change in the interinstitutional agreement, but I also have to look at the Commission. You know, any institution that has been working for a long time, if it is not pushed in a certain direction, if it is not continuously pushed in a certain direction, will return to muscle memory and do things the way it has always been done. And we have not reached the point of no return with better regulation yet. So I hope, the next Commission – and certainly if I lead it, it will certainly do that – will make sure we continue along this path. I think if we continue tree four more years, we will have reached the point of no return and then better regulation principles will automatically be applied by Commission services, and I think that would be a good thing.
Right, we also have to make sure that when policy priorities change, we adapt. And policy priorities do change. I believe we will put the United Nations sustainable development goals in front and centre in policy development for the next 10-15 years leading up to 2030 and we will certainly do that if I have a say. So, if we do that, we will have to adapt but that will not mean we will no longer apply the same rules of better regulation.
Let me conclude by stressing once again that better regulation efforts will inevitably and, at times significantly, fall short if they are not shared efforts at all levels.
The Commission is a key player in furthering better regulation but we are not the only ones. We need Parliament for that, we need the Council for that, we need Member States authorities for that and as I have learned in the task force, we certainly also need local and regional authorities and all the other stakeholders in the private sector and NGO’s to do that, and everybody has to do its part.
Better regulation, Ladies and Gentlemen, under this Commission was different not only because we strengthened its reach but also because this has been a different, more political Commission.
Under the next Commission, it should remain a priority but will again be different, because we have new challenges. I hope today in our stocktaking exercise, the reflections I just shared with you and, above all, the debates you will have today, will help the next Commission to make even better regulation policy than today and even more successful results tomorrow.
Thank you very much for your attention.