Spring Cleaning of Jean-Claude Juncker

Spring Cleaning of Jean-Claude JunckerThe Juncker Commission has managed to establish a great household. According to its work program, presented on Tuesday, December 16 by Frans Timmermans, Vice President, the European Commission proposes to tackle in 2015 no more than twenty legislation projects. Nearly 80 proposals, inherited from the Barroso era, are resting in the drawers of the branches of the institution. The European Council points out that those drafts that are plagued by the absence of agreement between the member countries should go in the trash. A “reset” is still unpublished in Brussels.

On the same Tuesday Frans Timmermans, first vice-president, was to announce a work program for 2015. Twenty laws only will be offered next year to deepen the union of energy, numerical or fight against the tax evasion. Dozens of other projects could be abandoned.

What remains after this sweep? Initiatives that fall within the priorities that Jean-Claude Juncker will have fixed by summer. The creation of the European Fund for strategic investments, supposed to help come to life his stimulus package to 315 billion euros. The fight against unemployment, with the continuation of the European system of warranty for the young. The creation of a true digital single market, including a proposal to “modernize” the European copyright. A more integrated energy market, less dependent on Russian gas, and a reform of the market for CO2 allowances. The continuation of negotiations on the transatlantic treaty, and others.

Principle of “top down”

Among the texts that the Commission wants to sacrifice: an aid project for snacks in schools, a draft directive on the quality of the air, on the circular economy (the reprocessing of waste), another for better protection pregnant women at work… “Europe must be ambitious in terms of social and environmental standards. But when a law is blocked in Council because States fail to agree, you have to wonder about the best way to achieve these goals. Whenever this is the case, we will propose an alternative approach. Because we want real results, not symbolic proposals that have no chance of being adopted and implemented on the ground,” says Timmermans.

“There was no question of the work program by inviting NGOs and MEPs, otherwise they would not be released,” said a European source. But if the Commission has the monopoly of legislative initiative, the laws must be validated by the States (Council) and by MEPs (in Parliament). And this is where they can be changed. In this context, on Tuesday, Mr Timmermans also talked about the need for the three EU institutions to set common priorities and speed up the decision process.

To stay on track, the Juncker team wants to establish the principle of “top down” instead of current “bottom-up”. Priorities will be set by the President and the Vice-Presidents, not by the commissioners and branches in their corner. The General Secretariat, the “control tower” of the institution, will be enhanced by about 80 recruits – it already has about 550 – to set to music this new approach. A radical change of operation.

The manufactures of Brussels aberrations

Who has not heard at least one anecdote about the rules of shocking nature designed by Brussels? Crooked cucumbers banned in stalls until 2009? The draft regulation of olive oil bottles in restaurants? The normalization of the floor area of the jungle gym? This report of over 120 pages advocating a maximum of 5 liters for flushing? Not to mention the commissioning, on September 1, of a maximum power for vacuum cleaners, or these reflections on the relevance of the double slot toasters…

British tabloids and Eurosceptics in general love to make much of this type of stories, sometimes completely fantasized. Real or distorted, they have considerably damaged the image of Europe. Shouldn’t the Community institutions had better taken care of the real problems of Europeans? Mass unemployment and the Ukrainian crisis, for example?

Better regulation and less regulation. Once in fifteen years, every new term of the European Commission, that wishful thinking is formulated: Romano Prodi, in the early 2000s, José Manuel Barroso, at regular intervals, during his two terms (2004-2014). Nothing has really changed. This time it is going to be real, promises Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission since November 1.

“Protectionist measure”

Nobody denies in Brussels that the approach is sound, since producing more than 1,000 “legislative acts” per year is too much. The institutions are partly responsible. The organization of the Commission, with twenty-eight commissioners (one from each member country) and thirty Directorates General (DGs, administrations), all highly compartmentalized, which leads to inflation of laws. “Every end of year, the Directors General of DG meet to discuss their legislative agenda. Everyone comes with their shopping list, with the length proportional to the demands of NGOs, lobbies. The longer it is, the more resources are likely to be significant, recounts a highly placed European source. The General Secretariat of the Commission makes the first selection, the College of Commissioners comes last and often merely confirms. “If the Commission has the monopoly of legislative initiative, the Council (the meeting of States) and MEPs also come with their list of demands. And most of the laws are adopted by co-decision (in “trialogue”).

The proliferation of Brussels texts is also due to the needs of European integration. Many of them have been produced to create the conditions of the single market. Facilitating access to national markets of the Union for European manufacturers, but also – it’s less acknowledged – to protect this great market for foreign manufacturers. “The curvature of cucumber was a protectionist measure,” says a veteran of the Commission. “In early December, in the Competitiveness Council, EU ministers have agreed on a standard for safety gloves. There, it is to prevent Chinese gloves that do not protect much, flooding the market. We did not have much choice. If we want a single market, prevent member countries from erecting barriers in every way to protect their industries, they must be regulated well.”

There are also all some laws (the safety standards for private pools, preservation of animal welfare, reduction of energy consumption) that are well-meant but sometimes are unintelligible. The Ecodesign Directive, for example. Adopted in 2005, it aims to limit the energy consumption of conventional machines. It is the one that generated the rules on the power vacuum cleaners, cooker hoods, those toasters or video game consoles.

Whenever Brussels “attacks” a new class of products, the media have a ball. This is what exasperates Stephane Arditi, the Brussels association EEB (European Environmental Bureau): “They say those are little things. But when you add them, this can lead to great results. The 2020 targets of climate policy in Europe could be achieved in large part thanks to this directive! Entrust the states to set their own standards? Manufacturers are opposed to this. For them, it would be a nightmare.”

Culture change

Why such a misunderstanding? “The Commission miscommunicates”, according to its activist. And the media “follow into the footsteps of the British tabloids.” And to quote a blog run by the European Commission Representation in the UK, they denounce the “Euromyths”. One of its recent posts flashes back on a crazy story peddled by the Daily Mail. ‘Brussels bans cow dung in sloping fields,` featuring a photo of a Bavarian farmer who equipped his ruminants with giant nappies… “Completely wrong”, asserts the blog.

“Even if the intention is good, the public has the impression that Brussels officials get up in the morning saying: “What am I going to invent to annoy people?” The political cost of this approach has become high, perhaps too high,” says Yves Bertoncini, the think tank of Notre Europe.

So it would be better to drop some laws even if they are going in the right direction and let the states take over their own subjects in question. But how to decide, when opinions can be so versatile? A senior European institution said: “In the early 1990s, there has been a controversy over the light of car headlights. Jacques Calvet, the head of PSA Peugeot-Citroën, opposed the “Brussels officials” who wanted to remove the yellow lights, a French specificity, and replace them with white ones. Today, in the countryside, when I happen to come across a car with yellow headlights, I wonder how we could withstand as uncomfortable light.”

To succeed where others have failed, Mr Timmermans hopes for a change in culture. In conclusion, the Commission, with its “I legislate, therefore I exist” philosophy, should make well explained political choices at the risk of incurring the wrath of the lobbies, MEPs and even states. This has already begun, NGOs on the frontline against the risk of abandonment of two directives, “Clean Air” and “Circular Economy.” A dozen of European Ministers for ecology, including Segolene Royal, sent a letter to Mr Juncker…

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