Lee Rotherham: Cutting bureaucracy Brussels-style

Reform of a rotten practice is a wonderful thing to see. It’s doubly welcome when the change has been long pledged and is massively overdue. So we should for once have something to be happy about as we observe how (in document 2010/C 336/01) the European Commission has set out a list of regulations it has reviewed and has decided to repeal.

The action is ridiculously overdue, stemming from a pledge made a full Commission ago. Senior Brussels staffers noted how the very scale and complexity of the acquis was a factor that was driving the unpopularity of the EU, and it was getting worse year on year. The response was a commitment to cut the legislative waste.

The initial response from the bureaucrats at the coal face was late and paltry. Amongst one tiny batch of revoked legislation, for instance, could be found items that were being deleted because the cut off date had been reached (rendering the legislation dead in any event, just floating face down in the acquis). A couple even were specifically set up to apply to East Germany, a country that no longer existed.

This new compilation at least has the merit of being a less paltry affair. There are a solid 29 pages of lists of acquis that are being deleted. This is a positive improvement – it means around 400 regulations ditched, and no doubt the Commission’s press officers will hail it as a triumph for reform.

They would be wrong.

Items are being deleted because they are “obsolete as an act of temporary nature”, or because they have been replaced by another text, or because the country in question then joined the EU. Many are being removed from the books as they have been erroneously kept in the acquis as far back as 1996. All fall within the areas of CAP grants and tariffs, of quotas and licenses, rather than cutting anything that acts as an obstacle and a burden to business or growth.

In terms of volume, 29 pages of lists seems like a lot. But the Commission stopped printing the published volumes of lists making up the whole telephone directory of the acquis when it couldn’t find bindings big enough to hold it, and that was already around ten years ago.

This is a exercise to simplify the books, to cut the dead wood rather than to prune in order to grow. While that may be an appropriate measure for a civil service to undertake so that people better understand the rules, it does nothing for the dead hand of bureaucracy, and sadly shows once again that Brussels, like the Bourbons, learns nothing but forgets nothing.

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