Better Regulation… For more social justice ?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 13:16

20 May 2015

This morning, on my way to work, I read the new EU communication on Better Regulation, a set of proposals to change decision-making processes at EU level in order to deliver better results. This Communication outlines how the new European Commission, appointed last year, sees its job for the coming five years. When I got out of the train station in the center of the European area of Brussels, a man was kneeling on the floor, with a placard “J’ai faim, aidez-moi”. I’m hungry, help me! I wondered: will this Commission, with its Better Regulation agenda, serve the interests of the millions of people across Europe that have seen their economic opportunities and social rights eroded over the past few years? Will the EU leaders deliver on fighting inequality, globally on the rise in Europe?

So here’s what I thought could be said to the man with the placard:

Hey, guy, you will now have the possibility to provide input on upcoming initiatives on the website of the European Commission. This is your chanceThis opportunity will be open to people like you – on an equal footing with big companies who spend tens of millions[1] of euros every year to influence the EU decision making processes. It may be a bit difficult to compete with such power imbalance? Well, that’s part of the game! Ah, I forgot to mention: Nearly all documents are in English only (including the Better Regulation proposals). You don’t speak that language?  I’m sorry…

The Commission wants the European Union to serve citizens and businesses. Why businesses? The Lisbon treaty refers to “citizens” and “civil society” and “representative associations” when it describes the obligation for the Commission to ensure participatory dialogue and consultation. No specific reference there to companies.

The private sector’s massive influence on EU decision making processes is already part of today’s reality. Those participating in the civil society dialogue with the Directorate General for Trade know that. Officially, only not-for-profit civil society organisations can participate.[2] That’s the rule. However, in practice, the majority of participants in such consultations are associations representing various industries. Formally registered as not-for-profit, even though their mission is to serve the interests of their members, who are themselves companies seeking profit…

The word “business” appears 24 times in the Better Regulation Communication. The words “trade union”? Zero! Those words do not appear at all! The Communication acknowledges explicitly that the EU Treaty provisions concerning social partners’ consultations will be respected. Of course, a communication from the Commission cannot change the Treaties… ActionAid, like others[3], fears that this new way of working of the Commission may further increase the influence of corporate lobbyists, and may reduce the flexibility of the Parliament and Member States to amend Commission’s proposals.

A recent International Monetary Fund analysis has stressed that inequality has risen in many advanced economies since the 1980s. It says the most striking development is the large and continuous increase in the share of total income garnered by the 10 percent of the population that earns the most. And it warns this inequality can reduce a population’s welfare, especially if it allows top earners to manipulate the economic and political system in their favour. This analysis concludes that there is strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in inequality.[4] Against that background, one would have wished much stronger references to trade unions’ role in the Commission’s vision.

But there are at least two other reasons to worry with yesterday’s Commission proposals: the Commission reasserts that its priority is “to deliver solutions to the big issues that cannot be addressed by the Member States alone”. On the top of the short list of priorities: growth and jobs. The word “decent”, now routinely associated with “jobs”, has strangely disappeared. Same with the word “inclusive” often associated with “growth”. Does it mean that the Commission is resigned to have more and more workers living in poverty in Europe? Among those priorities, nothing about strengthening environmental protection – which definitely is a shared challenge that Member States can’t address alone. Nothing about repairing the broken tax system or putting an end to tax havens – also a problem requiring collective action. Nothing about the urgent need to further regulate the financial sector so that it can benefit society at large.

The second reason for worry is the lack of any reference to the impact of our policies on third countries, and in particular on people living in poverty in those countries. Assessing impacts of existing and future policies is a central part of the Better Regulation proposals – but no serious attention is paid to impacts outside Europe – a shrunk and short term vision in today’s globalised world.

My message to another man about this opportunity:

Franz Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Better Regulation, you are a socialist. There are thousands of definitions of socialism, but they all share a quest for social justice. We can’t find that vision in the proposals you made yesterday. This is the major challenge of this century. Please, don’t miss it.