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European Better Regulation between Populism and Technocracy

Written by Francesco Stolfi

To what extent do policies decided at the European Union (EU) level actually get implemented by its member states? This fundamental question is not easy to answer. In fact, most work in the vast literature on the implementation of EU policies confines itself to studying the degree of formal transposition of EU legislation. In our  recent article in Comparative European Politics, The implementation of administrative burden reduction policy: Mechanisms and contexts in the study of Europeanization,  Fabrizio Di Mascio, Alessandro Natalini and I go a step further, analysing the extent of change in the behaviour of domestic actors and in actual policy outcomes resulting from the EU initiatives for better regulation (reducing the regulatory burden on citizens and firms) between 2007 and 2014. The article focuses on the four largest continental member states (France, Germany, Italy and Spain).

New methods for administrative burden reduction began to diffuse from the Netherlands to other European countries and eventually the EU in the early/mid-2000s, with the European Commission launching two administrative burden reduction initiatives in 2007 and 2013. The actual results in the four Member States have varied significantly, as Table 1 shows:

Table 1: Outcome of EU Better Regulation Initiatives (2007-2014) in France, Germany, Italy and Spain

France  “Tangible results” in 50 procedures 

Improvements in the companies’ perception of administrative burdens about some Life Events



Germany 25% reduction of information obligations on businesses met 

Compliance costs kept at the same level as of 2012

Italy 9 euro billions in annual savings for businesses (29% reduction) 

Episodic local level reductions

Spain 30% reduction of information obligations on businesses not met 

Lack of significant contribution by subnational levels of government


In France, the domestic burden reduction programme at first adhered closely to the EU’s prescriptions and goals. However, the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 produced a marked shift to what we have called a populist approach. Cost estimation and quantitative reduction targets were abandoned, placing the emphasis on the practical implementation of more selective reduction measures, so as to achieve better potential for reduction on the basis of ‘life events’ analysis. The new qualitative approach relied on professionally conducted opinion surveys and standing stakeholder panels complemented by open consultation via the Internet with a dedicated website (Ensemble simplifions) to identify the most irritating administrative formalities for four categories of users (businesses, citizens, local authorities and associations), as well as their expectations regarding burden reduction. The new populist approach benefited from the French government’s high capacity for coordination that supported the required interdepartmental steering. Consistent with the populist approach, detailed and regular information has been provided on the progress of the program in real-time updates on the Ensemble Simplifions website.

The new Hollande presidency has continued on the path opened by its predecessor. An open on-line consultation platform and a new organizational pivot in the prime minister’s office (Mission Simplification) have been set up. At the end of 2015 a new oversight body, exclusively composed of businesses representatives, will be constituted that should assess the ex-ante costs of new legislation.

Conversely, in Germany governments have consistently adopted a technocratic approach. An independent external watchdog (NKR-Normenkontrollrat  – Regulatory Control Council) was created as early as 2006. In addition to the ex-ante advice and monitoring of administrative burdens arising from new regulations, the NKR has also provided methodological support for the measurement of existing burdens and the identification of reduction potential. The starting point for the measurement of burdens was the mapping by sectoral departments of the information obligations for businesses under the federal laws and the transmission of the results to the Federal Statistics Office, which quantified the information costs in cooperation with associations, enterprises and consultancy firms. The Federal Statistics Office also developed the WebSKM, an online database which has been the basis for reporting by the Federal Government.

In Italy, the administrative burden reduction policy has had both technocratic and populist features. The Italian programme was launched in 2007 in an unfavourable context marked by the executive’s low capacity for interdepartmental steering. However, some design features of the Italian policy proved to be effective in counteracting the fragmentation of the institutional setup. First, the production of cost estimates was entrusted to the National Institute of Statistics. Second, the business community has closely cooperated with a network of experts to select intervention areas, evaluate costs and monitor the reduction of administrative burdens. Since 2012 the stakeholders’ direct involvement has been complemented, as in France, by a tool for online consultation (Burocrazia diamoci un taglio), allowing businesses and citizens to report cases of red tape and propose solutions. Furthermore, Italian policy makers have adopted a selective approach to measurement focusing on the most critical areas rather than mapping all information obligations, and subsequent waves of governmental decrees have defined the key priority areas to be addressed. In 2014, the Renzi government strengthened the public online consultation process while a number of particularly burdensome administrative procedures were identified via a perception survey.

Finally, in Spain governments have shown little political commitment to administrative simplification, largely reacting to the initiatives of the European Commission. The Spanish Action Plan followed the European Commission’s approach of targeting priority areas rather than screening all the regulatory stock. However, just six out of the thirteen areas identified by the European Commission were addressed. Furthermore, while the government did create new structures to coordinate the programme, these were unable to overcome the entrenched informal nature of inter-ministerial coordination, and were disbanded after the release of the Action Plan.

This research shows that political considerations have had a significant impact on the nature of implementation, ranging between populism and technocracy, of EU better regulation initiatives. Even more fundamentally, in areas where the EU cannot resort to legal coercion the political will of national actors, rather than learning or peer pressure, remains of central importance for the very success of implementation.

Francesco Stolfi is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Image credit: CC by Eoghan OLionnain/Flickr

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