The UK and the EU
Europe’s Deregulation Coalition

The EU trying to cut red tape strikes many as almost a contradiction in terms: red tape is just what the EU does, right? But in actuality, a potent coalition of EU countries in favor of a more relaxed, pro-innovation, and pro-business stance on everything from regulation to legislation that has always been a distinct possibility on the continent—and it might just be emerging into the sunlight. A Dutch member of the European Commission has tabled an interesting agenda that tries to move the EU that direction. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Euroskeptics don’t annoy me when they’re wrong, they annoy me when they’re right,” commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said at a press conference Tuesday. Mr. Timmermans, who is in charge of “better regulation,” is also the likely counterpart of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in the upcoming negotiations with the U.K. ahead of a planned referendum on Britain’s membership in the bloc.

The measures envisioned by Mr. Timmermans include more impact assessments on draft legislation as well as a new agreement on transparency and scrutiny with the two other institutions involved in EU lawmaking: The European Parliament and the council of ministers. The commission hopes to finalize this agreement by the end of the year.

A new “regulatory scrutiny board” comprised of six members — three from the commission and three from the trade unions, non-governmental organizations and other specialized groups — will be chaired by an independent person. The board will “quickly review amendments so politicians can take a better and informed decision” of the effect a final deal will have.

Those excited by these moves should not underestimate the scale of the challenges Timmermans faces. The EU is both structurally and culturally inclined to regulation; in fact, as the article makes clear, this was all prompted by a bureaucracy that had not noticed ludicrous measures (such as banning open olive oil bottles at restaurant tables) would be objectionable until after they were made public. Short of firing half of the Brussels bureaucrats and replacing them with the staff of the Cato Institute, it will be hard to fix the way it approaches regulation overnight.

But it still says something that this has gone forward—and it’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that Timmermans, who is Dutch, will be the point man for the upcoming British negotiations. Britain has long been tabbed as the potential leader of an effective reform coalition within the EU that would include the Netherlands. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is almost a byword for deregulation and pro-market policies within Europe (for better or for worse), and only Britain has both the cultural affinity for the freer forms of capitalism and also the national heft to dream of successfully leading such a charge.

But that coalition has so far failed to emerge. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in The Sunday Times (of London) in November:

We see potential reform coalitions everywhere we look; what we don’t see is the kind of brilliant British initiative that so often in Europe’s past brought order out of chaos and built alliances that checked those who sought to smother the continent’s diversity and subject it to a single, crushing system.

Cameron’s newly elected government has a chance to change that record—and what would luck have, but that the man who will be across the table seems to also think a change is needed. This relationship, as well as Timmerman’s specific proposals, bears close watching.

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