Everybody loves a good plumber. One who comes in, fixes a leak and leaves with a minimum of fuss. That is precisely what the European Commission’s REFIT programme is designed for: give anyone in Europe the opportunity to flag red tape in EU laws and get EU institutions to fix it. Well, that’s the theory. The reality is somewhat different.
Launched in December 2012 the REFIT platform really took-off with the adoption of the so-called “better regulation agenda” in May 2015. It has been vigorously promoted by Juncker and Timmermans as part of an ambitious package of reforms aiming to “boost openness and transparency in the EU decision-making process, improve the quality of new laws, and promote constant and consistent review of existing EU laws, so that EU policies achieve their objectives in the most effective and efficient way”.
Grievance submission is very straightforward, just a few clicks and the “suggestions for improvement” are sent away to… well, this is where a complex play begins. The first act starts with a screening by the Secretariat General, the “stormtroopers” of the European Commission’s 33 DGs. It is followed by a submission to the relevant DGs, which then go back with input to the Secretariat General, which in turn reviews the DGs’ assessment. In the second act this assessment is presented to the REFIT Platform, made up of a government group (28 high-level experts, one per Member State), and of a stakeholder group (20 experts from various backgrounds). Only then comes the final act: the Platform concludes its review; the DG suggests a draft Commission response in coordination with the Secretariat General which is finally published on the REFIT website.
According to our estimates, up to one third of submissions relate to the administrative burden linked to EU legislation stemming from national implementation measures. A large chunk of the remaining submissions tackle issues that are either not related to EU competencies or are linked to ongoing or upcoming revisions. This leaves only a very few viable and tangible inputs for the Commission to work on. Among these, some highly political ones such as the revision of the Dublin Regulation on asylum were quickly slapped down as not “reviewable” under the REFIT platform.
Well, that’s probably right. The Commission should not use REFIT to call whole pieces of EU law into question. But then the question is what it should be used for. Optimists will say that 21 of the 22 opinions issued by the REFIT Platform in 2016 are part of the Commission Work programme for 2017. Cynics will insist that those opinions fit surprisingly well with the Commission’s expected agenda. If REFIT somehow addresses the lack of dialogue between EU institutions and its citizens one should not overestimate the potential gains. Traditional interaction with policymakers to shape Europe’s still has a long life.
Antoine Mialhe is senior director in FTI Consulting’s healthcare team in Brussels.