The ETUI Monthly Forum held on 28 February zeroed in on the European Commission’s programme to streamline EU legislation, known by the abbreviation REFIT (from Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme). Its aim is to simplify or scrap directives and regulations supposed to be an "administrative burden” on business
Many of the laws in the Commission’s sights concern health and safety at work, social dialogue, information and consultation of workers and environmental issues.
European politics specialist Eric van den Abeele of Mons University argued that REFIT is the heir to the EU’s previous Better Regulation and Smart Regulation “legislative simplification” programmes. But he pointed to a change in the terminology used, where “regulatory burden” has now ousted “administrative burden”. This rejigged language is not anodyne. It arguably reflects an agenda to treat law as a potential obstacle to economic development, with a cost to be "minimized" so as not to undermine the competitiveness of EU business. EU law thus becomes seen less as protective in the broad sense and as a factor of legal certainty for business than as an inordinately costly encumbrance and a pointless irritant.
Mr van den Abeele also observed that the co-legislators – the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers – were gradually being elbowed aside by expert groups - "always high-level" – who represent stakeholders, but most importantly and more often, think tanks, consortia and international consulting firms. These are dominated by the business world while representatives of the workers and certain groups of EU countries (Eastern Europe in particular) are notable by their absence. Mr van den Abeele singled out here the "High Level Group of Independent Stakeholders on Administrative Burdens" chaired by former Minister-President of Bavaria Edmund Stoiber.
Other influential players also act as "filters" between the different co-legislators. The Impact Assessment Board, for example, tasked with assessing the quality of each social, economic and environmental impact assessment report for every major legislative initiative proposed at European level. Mr van den Abeele describes the working of these bodies as a sieve of increasingly reducing mesh. He also argued that in assessments of draft laws, economic impacts significantly win out over social and environmental impacts due to the addition of a series of additional impact assessments (SME test, impact on the internal market, impact on the EU’s external competitiveness, etc.) which bump up the economic considerations. Although intended to simplify laws and reduce the "administrative burden", the implementation of these programmes has led to the creation of a "new bureaucracy" that is increasingly costly, slows down the decision-making process, and tends to detract from the co-legislators’ decision in favour of "government by experts", argued Mr van den Abeele.
For her part, ETUC Confederal Secretary Veronica Nilsson said that the European Trade Union Confederation was not inherently opposed to Commission initiatives to improve the quality of EU legislation. But she argued that improving laws was being used as the pretext for a wave of deregulation across all areas. She pointed in particular to the Commission’s refusal to turn the European Social Partner Framework Agreement in the hairdressing sector into a Directive to improve health protection for hairdressers, even though sanctioned by the Treaty. This, said Veronica Nilsson, betrays the Commission’s total disregard for the European social partners.
Trade unions nationally have not stood idly by on REFIT, which they tend to see as an exercise in deregulation. Confederation of Christian Trade Unions of Belgium (CSC) official Herman Fonck presented the information campaign developed by Belgium’s three trade union confederations on the dangers of REFIT addressed to the Belgian candidates in the forthcoming European elections.
It is not just European social laws that are affected by REFIT. Tony Long (WWF) said that a score of environmental laws and regulations were also being targeted. "REFIT is the new norm inside the College of Commissioners", he said.
Communication from the Commission: Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT): Results and Next Steps
ETUC Resolution: Stop the deregulation of Europe: Rethink REFIT (December 2013)
Belgian unions: Rethink REFIT website