Juncker accused of leading ‘big business push for deregulation’

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

The REFIT red-tape-cutting programme has been criticised for proposals to exempt SMEs from certain rules
The REFIT red-tape-cutting programme has been criticised for proposals to exempt SMEs from certain rules

Related tags: European union

Anti-lobbying campaigners have accused new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker of putting the environment, consumers and workers at small companies at risk with a red-tape-cutting agenda.

In a report​, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Friends of the Earth Europe claim that a programme supported by Juncker to cut unnecessary bureaucracy has become “a crusade against any potential regulation that raises costs for business – and protects the environment, workers and consumers”.

Spokesperson for the Commission Natasha Bertaud told FoodNavigator: “Juncker wants to do the things that are best done at European level and leave everything else to Member States themselves. …He wants to be big on big things and small on small things.”

Regulating ‘shower caps and coffee machines’

The report is particularly critical of the Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT), intended to simplify European legislation in response to concerns that businesses face too many costly requirements, and accusations that the European Union interferes in people’s daily lives.

It draws attention to a speech Juncker made in Helsinki in April, in which he said: “Yes, we can ensure that the EU no longer regulates the energy intensity of shower caps and coffee machines. But if we want to be honest about this, we will then have to abolish the EU’s Eco Design Directive, which had the support of a majority of Member States and of the European Parliament.
“As Commission President, I will look into this question to see whether Europe is ready to abolish this legislation, in spite of our common commitment to a healthy environment and to fighting climate change.”
 
Referring to this speech, the report claims “deregulation has become an end in itself”​ for Juncker, above tackling climate change “or even the fulfilment of democratically decided policies”.​  

Bertaud said Juncker was pointing out the possible, while reminding people of potential ramifications. According to the Commission’s own estimate, 74% of Europeans think the EU generates too much red tape.

“He was saying, we ​can do that, but we will have to take responsibility for that,”​ she said.

SME exemptions

 A report for the Commission​ on REFIT released last month recommended legislative exemptions for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), on soil protection and maternity pay among others. Under the EU’s definition, SMEs can employ up to 250 people and earn up to €50m a year – and they account for 99% of businesses in Europe.

The CEO report pointed out that SME union representatives have opposed exemptions.

Director of enterprise policy at major SME union UEAPME, Luc Hendrickx, told The Guardian​ last month: “It makes no sense. It sounds good, but it’s pure populism. We don’t want exemptions; we don’t want to be treated as second-class enterprises. What’s the point in any legislation if you’re exempting 99%?”

Spokesperson for food industry trade association FoodDrinkEurope Florence Ranson told FoodNavigator that the organisation had read the CEO report, but had no comment on it.

“We however indeed support the REFIT programme, in particular for the benefit of our 99% SMEs we represent, i.e. 285 000 SMEs throughout Europe, many of which are (very) small family owned businesses,” ​she said.

Political discontinuity

Commission spokesperson Bertaud also responded to the report’s assertion that Juncker’s decision to review incomplete legislative proposals was unusual for the Commission.

The report said: “Political discontinuity…usually applies to elected governments, not administrative bodies.”

Bertaud disagreed: “The Commission is continuously reviewing legislation…This is something we have always done. In the last five years, we have repealed thousands of pieces of legislation that were outdated.”

This is not the first time REFIT has come in for criticism. Following its launch last year, NGOs claimed​ it could reverse positive policies, particularly those intended to protect the environment.

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