Wednesday 13 October 2010

How much EU law is there? Smart regulation and impact assessments

Quantity and quality are different things, but the European Commission offers an approximate answer to the question how many legal acts there are with European Union origin.

This detail is found in the Report from the Commission:

27th annual report on monitoring the application of EU law (2009); Brussels, 1.10.2010 COM(2010) 538 final (12 pages)

Quantity of EU regulation

The numbers won’t end discussions about how “intrusive” or expensive EU regulation is, or on the other hand how far away the more than 50 year old ex common market, now officially the internal market, is from the ideal of a seamlessly functioning single market.

However, even the detail about the number of legal acts on the EU statute book has some relevance. This is what the report tells us on page 2:

At the end of 2009, EU law comprised, apart from the rules of the Treaty, some 6140 regulations and just under 1820 directives in force throughout the 27 Member States.

Quality of EU regulation

The basic argument in favour of EU level regulation is that businesses have to contend with one set of red tape instead of 27, or 30 when we take the European Economic Area (EEA) into account.

There are external aspects as well. Internal market standards for a fairly rich EEA with about 506 million consumers set ‘de facto’ norms for businesses elsewhere. In short, if third country enterprises want to export to the EU, they have to achieve European product standards. In international trade negotiations the common commercial policy potentially gives the European Union clout way beyond what a member state could hope to achieve on its own.

Some of those who are wedded to ‘light touch regulation’ tend to forget that rules and standards are intended to protect people: life, health, safety at work, consumer protection. As an ideology, a race to the bottom is not exempt from dangers for the common good.

This still leaves open the question of the costs versus benefits of regulation. If we care for both businesses and wider societal effects, we have to search for answers in a more pragmatic and evidence-based manner than through pure ideology.

It is fairly easy to demonstrate the gross or even net contributions of member states to the budget of the European Union. It is more difficult to quantify the costs of EU regulation compared to the alternative, national norm-setting, or the savings for the national economies and businesses through joint regulation at continental level. - The alternative is not EU regulation or no regulation (and regulatory burden).

Anyone who proposes ‘freely cooperating, sovereign nation states’ as an alternative should study the common market as long as its progress was ruled by unanimity. Without supra-national decision-making there would be no real common market (even in the imperfect form of today).

The European Union is not totally deaf to criticism. “Better regulation” has long been one of those activities, which are little noticed by the wider public, but extremely important for both enterprises and EU citizens.

Smart regulation updates

“Smart regulation” is now the Commission’s preferred term for the “better regulation” agenda. The European Commission regularly reports on progress in this area.

For a quick overview, you can read the fresh press release from the Commission, available in 22 languages:

Smart regulation: ensuring that European laws benefit people and businesses; 8 October 2010 IP/10/1296

Impact assessments

The press release from the Commission followed on the heels of a report, where the Court of Auditors evaluated the impact assessment system. The Commission’s welcoming words can be found in another press release, also available in 22 languages:

Impact assessments improve the Commission's policy-making. Commission welcomes positive report by the European Court of Auditors; 28 September 2010 IP/10/1187

If you suspect the Commission of favourable spin, you may want to read the ECA’s own press release for comparison:

Press release 28 September 2010 ECA/10/19: Special report: Impact Assessments in the EU institutions: do they support decision-making?

Impact assessments are important challenges for national authorities, as well as for institutions and bodies at European level. If you find impact assessments worth deeper study, you can access the ECA Special report No 3/2010 (28 September 2010):

Impact assessments in the EU institutions: Do they support decision-making? (76 pages)

The ECA press release and the full report seem to be available in English, French and German.

Smart regulation communication

Those who want more on better or smart regulation can head towards the Commission’s well structured Better regulation web pages (although the latest documents have not always been added to the various pages).

Primary sources are better than secondary ones, so we set our course for the latest communication from the Commission.

Since the search among COM documents on Eur-Lex tells us that COM(2010) 543 is not available in English (=not posted), we have to be content with the English, French or German version available through the Key documents page under Better regulation. Here for the English language version of the Communication from the Commission:

Smart Regulation in the European Union; Brussels, 8.10.2010 COM(2010) 543 final (11 pages)

The Communication on smart regulation offers an updated view of efforts to improve the quality of regulation in and by the European Union. The document references make it a helpful source for those who want to get to grips with regulation policy at EU level in general, or delve into particular aspects.


We have not reached a conclusive answer on the right amount of EU regulation, but we are offered the chance to become confused at a higher level.

Ralf Grahn

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