Better Regulation and the Future of EU Environmental Policy

“Better regulation” is often viewed with suspicion or hostility by those pressing for improved environmental protection. This is not without good cause as the better regulation agenda is easily hijacked by those seeking less regulation for their own narrow interests. Yet, targeted regulation can be better for Europe’s citizens by delivering environmental objectives more effectively with less input.

The better regulation agenda in the Commission comes in waves and was widely discussed in the 1990s: the Barroso I Commission re-energised it and Barroso II reformulated it as ‘smart regulation’. The Juncker Commission went back to the terminology of ‘better regulation’, with the launch of a major toolkit to support policy evaluation in May 2015. No one knows what the next Commission will place on the agenda in 2019.

The terminology used in the better agenda is usually hard to argue with. Surely everyone wants regulation to be ‘better’ by being more ‘effective’, ‘efficient’, and ‘relevant’. Yet, it is how these objectives are interpreted in practice that matters.

For the EU, the purpose of adopting regulation is to deliver the objectives of the Treaty. This includes the objectives on protecting our common environment. Therefore, the objectives of better regulation should be to help deliver those objectives. At the same time, better regulation should minimise any unintended consequences, such as costs to business.

So, how do we know what “better” means in each case?

First, regulation should cover all of the necessary areas. Does regulation address all of the environmental issues that should be addressed by EU law? In practice, it does not. Some issues are best dealt with by other instruments and by Member States themselves (principle of subsidiarity).

Second, is the law well designed? Does it cover the right issues and specify who does what? Would the problem be tackled to the degree intended through full implementation?

Third, is the regulation able to be implemented? Is it clear what is needed, who is responsible and how to check implementation, etc.?

Fourth, are the different laws coherent? This is not just about EU environmental law, but is also a challenge to sectoral laws such as the CAP. Better regulation should ensure that EU laws do not pull in different, or even opposite, directions.

Fifth, is implementation of the law efficient? Do the processes at EU and Member State level reduce costs to the minimum necessary to deliver the objectives?

It is important for those wishing to see an improved European environment to take the messages of better regulation forward as they should be. For the EU, it is the Treaty objectives that matter, and regulation should be designed to deliver them. Gaps in implementation and delivery of environmental legislation are well-documented. But what lies behind those gaps, and how can they be addressed?

If the future of EU environmental policy is not included in the better regulation agenda, it will fall into deregulatory hands, which will not be in the interests of the environment. IEEP is helping a number of national governments in the Make it Work initiative, which aims to tackle some of the issues identified above. The initiative provides a clear aim of improving the effectiveness of the EU’s delivery of environmental objectives by improving the nature of EU environmental law.

For more information on the Make it Work project, please contact Andrew Farmer.