Bureaucracy Rollback Brussels on the Defensive

Facing a backlash from Europeans against overregulation from Brussels, the European Commission is pursuing an unprecedented plan to cut red tape, Handelsblatt has learned.
These papers go in the trash.

The European Commission in Brussels has an image problem.

Its incoming president, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, hopes to change that.

Mr. Juncker pledged earlier this year that the European Union’s executive arm would focus more on big programs that matter rather than alienating citizens and companies with small-ball regulatory nit-picking better left to national governments.

In a first sign of this hands-off approach, Mr. Juncker now plans to drop some 80 proposals for new E.U. rules that governments in the 28-nation bloc had been unable to agree on anyway. That would cut the number of unfinished proposals in Brussels from about 450 today.

The document, outlining the Commission’s work program for 2015, has been seen by Handelsblatt.

Euro-skepticism is on the rise in Europe amid an economic and debt crisis that has driven up unemployment in southern Europe to as much as a quarter of the population.

National governments have struggled to agree on proposals to boost growth and reform their economies, but it is the E.U.’s executive arm in Brussels that has borne much of the criticism for imposing tough austerity measures on struggling member states like Greece.

Environmental protections are being reversed under the cover of reducing bureaucracy. Rebecca Harms, MEP, Green Party

Far-right and euro-skeptic parties made huge gains in European Parliament elections in May, though moderate parties maintained control.

The electoral shift prompted Mr. Juncker and other European policymakers to promise to heed the growing criticism and change course.

The commission's 2015 work program argues that initiatives that don’t meet commission goals or have little prospect of approval should be abandoned. All E.U. institutions should be freed to focus on the issues that really matter, the report says.

But Mr. Juncker could face some push-back, especially from environmental groups. His program would drop two ambitious initiatives, one to strengthen curbs on the release of harmful gases into the air and another to adopt new rules for recycling old cars, electronics and batteries.

The Commission’s argument for dropping these rules is that there is no agreement in sight in the E.U. Council, the legislative body that is made up of national governments, which has to sign off on any proposals with the European Parliament.

The parliament’s environment committee is worried. Rebecca Harms, head of the Germany’s Green Party faction in the European legislature, warned against a “rollback of environmental policy.”

“Environmental protections are being reversed under the cover of reducing bureaucracy,” Ms. Harms told Handelsblatt.

Other cancelled initiatives are less controversial, or at least it has long been clear that they were going nowhere. These include an effort to strengthen guidelines for pregnancy and the work place. Proposals to lengthen pregnancy leave for mothers from 14 to 18 months have been on the table since 2008, but have been rejected by a number of countries. Mr. Juncker has now given the E.U. Council six months to agree or drop the matter for good.

Another casualty is a guideline for taxing fuel and electricity, a measure that drew sharp criticism from Germany – where energy taxes are already among the highest in Europe - because it could raise diesel fuel prices. Mr. Juncker’s 2015 plan argued that negotiations within the European Council had in any case watered down the proposals to such an extent that it would be simpler to drop the matter altogether.

The Commission also plans to cut another disputed program to liberalize ground staff services at airports. Unions had long complained about the initiative, including in Germany.

The list of gutted programs goes on, including some initiatives that were once dear to the Commission’s heart. They include a European statute governing non-profit organizations, regulation of prices for medicine and common rules for the commercial use of satellite data.


Ruth Berschens is Handelsblatt’s bureau chief in Brussels. Christopher Cermak also contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]