REFIT: Easy implementation – and weak regulation?

Posted on 19. December 2013

by Enja Sæthren

Enja Sæthren NEWThe European Commission has often been target to criticism regarding its regulations being too complicated, const intensive, thick. In response to the demand of economic stakeholders as well as its own finding, the European Commission has set up a road map to “respond to the economic imperative”. In the idea this, so called “smart regulation”, aims on easing setting up businesses and employing people as well as using natural resources. During the past years this has found expression in the REFIT-programme (Regulatory Fitness and Performance), where the Commission has spent a lot of time and energy trying to make the EU regulations “easier”.

The simplifications have been given different names; laws and businesses ought to be “slimmer”, “smarter” and “fit for growth”. But what does this reform really constitute? “Simplification” can have a lot of different conceptions: It can mean to get rid of unnecessary micromanagement, or it can imply that it becomes easy to understand what is legal, required or prohibited. Alternatively, the message could be that fields of topics are being brought back to the national parliaments. However, a consequence of simplification can also be that burdens are moved, for instance from the business community to workers, customers and the natural environment. It is exactly this interpretation which seems to be the relevant to the case at hand,  as the main criteria through all of the REFIT-documents seems to be how much the business sector can earn on a less rigid EU-legislation.

In a joint letter from WWF, Bird Life Europe and EEB (the umbrella organization for European environmental organizations) they put it like this: REFIT is, without exception introduced as a scheme “to reduce administrative burdens without taking into account the benefits regulations may have on citizens, the economy and the environment.” And further: The European Commission “portrays the environment at worst as an obstacle to growth, and at best as something to be exploited for short-term economic advantages. (…) Despite that the EU previously has acknowledged that environmental standards and progressive regulation do not constitute a hindrance for the economy, but rather an advantage for economic growth and job creation.” The letter refers to two examples: emission requirements for cars and chemical legislation, which contributes to replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives. These two legislative areas are now at risk of a political setback. The same applies to the legislation regarding soil conservation and soil quality, where a bill prepared for a long time now is likely to be withdrawn.

Within the workplace the Commission alerts a review of the directives on information and consultation of employees in companies, rent work, workers stationed abroad, data protection, the working time directive, part-time and on temporary work. The aim for all of these directives is to reduce the administrative and financial burdens placed on small and medium-sized enterprises. The management of ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) has responded with harsh criticism of the REFIT project. In a statement ETUC regrets that

REFIT primarily concerns the kind of deregulation that has characterized the labor market in the EU for years – a deregulation for the benefit of employers and business leaders. In the words of Bernadette Ségol, leader of ETUC: “The internal market is only acceptable if it is supplemented with strong social regulations. REFIT will block all progress in that direction. ”

It is possible to read the texts of the Commission with less suspicion. But as always, it is the use of political force that will determine the result. If the trade unions and the environmental movement are reluctant to put pressure on the decision makers, they are sentenced to lose. Even if the intention to create simpler regulations which are supporting the creation of businesses, jobs and growths is a goal the European Commission should foster, it should be ensured that these simplifications are developed with all concerned stakeholders; taking into consideration only one side of the table will lead in its consequence to more costs, less smart solutions and even worsen the economic situation. It should therefore be in the interest of the European Commission to include not only the business side, but also invite the NGO’s and advocacy organizations to REFIT the sometimes, not easy to implement regulations. In that way, a more inclusive REFIT-program would also provide a chance to reestablish some of the trust that has drained away from the EU institutions during the past years.