Does the European Union have a reverse gear? Eurosceptics who profess themselves enraged by the EU’s relentless forward march think not. They point accusingly at that injunction in the preamble to the EU’s governing treaty to pursue the creation of “an ever closer union”. It amounts, they complain, to a commitment to go always forward and never back.
Yet the European Commission seems to have found some kind of reverse gear. This week it published the results of a review of legislation and legislative proposals. It includes specific suggestions to repeal legislation and to withdraw some proposals that are not yet EU law.
The rhetoric accompanying this review is a touch grandiloquent. Commission President José Manuel Barroso claims to have undertaken “the most comprehensive exercise to date to make EU law lighter and simpler”, the tone of which is somewhat out of keeping with the low-key pragmatism that is supposed to be the style of the review.
A churlish response – and it will be heard in many parts of the EU – would be to observe that the Commission is not surrendering much when it gives up on legislative proposals that have gone nowhere in the past eight years. The legislation that is earmarked for repeal is not the most headline-grabbing or fundamental to the EU. If this is reverse gear, then it is a few small steps backwards, not a headlong retreat.
A more generous response would be to observe that establishing procedure and precedents is very important. The case-by-case review is important. The initial results suggest that perhaps the individual Commission departments have retained too much control of the process (and therefore defended their own turf successfully) but the process once under way can be strengthened.
What is important now is that the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament subscribe to the Commission’s initiative. Their consent is not needed for the withdrawal of legislative proposals, but it will be needed in order to repeal or simplify existing laws. Barroso this week voiced a suspicion that some national ministers, when thwarted in their domestic attempts to put a measure on the national statute book, turn to the European Union to press for legislation at the European level. They have, he suggested, lobbied commissioners, members of the European Parliament, European trade associations and non-governmental organisations to get their way in Europe because they cannot get their way nationally.
The point is important: the European Commission simply is not strong enough on its own to reverse the EU’s interventionist habits, which are found not only in the Berlaymont. The question of whether European legislation is justified has to be asked in all EU institutions and outside.
The Eurosceptics will find, however, that this particular reverse gear has limited application. The Commission is not about to propose a revised allocation of powers between the national (or regional) governments and the centre. The central tenets – that the Commission has the right of initiative and the policy competences of the EU are set by the treaties – remain unchanged. Barroso’s intention is to smooth away points of turbulence and unnecessary friction. Once streamlined, the direction of travel will still be forward.
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