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European Union/Franco-Dutch seminar on simplification: “A national and European imperative”

Published on June 19, 2015
Speech by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development (excerpts)

Paris, June 17, 2015


We’ve chosen a theme: simplifying things in the European Union. How did this idea originate? When the French President visited The Hague in January 2014 we, the Netherlands and France, took the decision to organize this seminar in Paris together.
I really want to thank my friend Bert [Koenders] for being here and for our excellent cooperation. I’ll add a more personal note: when two countries can work as friends and this is also reflected in a personal friendship, it’s an additional pleasure.

Europe and simplicity: let’s say that for many of our fellow citizens those two words are not, as we say at the Quai d’Orsay, immediately compatible. There was a survey in France three or four years ago in which 75% of people questioned associated the European Union with the adjective “complex”. I don’t know the situation in several of the countries represented here, but I don’t think this is anything specifically French.

The aim of this seminar is to consider possible improvements. At the same time, from the outset of this meeting we must avoid naïvety or, worse, demagoguery.
The European Union inevitably has a certain level of sophistication. When 28 countries decide to share their sovereignty in several important spheres, it’s impossible to avoid complexity altogether. Complexity exists in every democracy, and it’s impossible to see how it would be any less strong when a political system brings together 28 states. A certain level of complexity must be accepted and explained.

But this leads me on to distinguishing two forms of complexity: on the one hand a legitimate complexity which we must take on board and which must make us work harder to explain things to citizens, and on the other an unjustified complexity, which we must seek out and put right. When the European Union consults member states and civil society, when it seeks to draw up relevant rules, sometimes there are complex procedures, but they’re legitimate. However, when the EU proves intrusive, when it establishes superfluous rules, when – to speak plainly – it focuses on cherry stems, then a source of complexity exists there which should be put right: in those cases simplification is an imperative.

An imperative of what kind? Firstly a democratic imperative. As far as France is concerned, the majority of our fellow citizens still believe in the European idea, but the complexity of the EU’s operation and rules is one of the reasons why there’s a certain disaffection, not with the European idea but with European practice. And sometimes the two elements are confused. And on the basis of this complexity the feeling is widespread, particularly among populists, that the EU decides without the people and sometimes even against the people. So, for democratic reasons, it’s necessary to move towards simplification.

And it’s also an economic imperative. Too often, European rules are perceived as additional sources of complexity, particularly for SMEs at a time when our major problem is employment, and especially youth employment. We must guarantee that the rules set for drawing up European rules enable us to avoid these excesses, for the sake of economic necessity itself.

The imperative of simplification doesn’t apply to the European Union alone: it also concerns each member state. This is true of France, as it is for the Netherlands, I imagine. As regards France, some time ago we launched a vast operation which we call a “simplification shock”, to try and simplify whatever can be simplified. In a moment, the Minister of State responsible for this, M. Thierry Mandon, will explain to you more specifically what we’re doing. One example: until now we’ve had 22 regions, whose powers slightly overlap with those of the communes; now we have 13 of them and I think the powers are a little clearer.

So simplification efforts must be made in a consistent way, Europe-wide and nationwide. If everyone operates in silos, we won’t pull through. We have a whole job of exchanging good practice, and I think this will be one of the positive sides of this seminar. (…)

The simplification imperative is national and European. It must be reflected in different ways: cutting unnecessary constraints, getting rid of obsolete legislation, but also acting more at European level, when it’s useful, because the adoption of a single European rule often enables simplification. For an SME that exports to the other member states, one rule is better than 28 and one currency is better than several.
Simplifying doesn’t mean unpicking the acquis [established EU laws and practice] or going back on the division of powers. It doesn’t mean calling into question the fundamental principles of the European enterprise, the integrity of the internal market, the free movement of people, the CAP or any other common policy which embodies the European enterprise. Simplifying means meeting a twofold challenge: being more effective and more democratic. To do this, we must rely on the support of our member states and the initiatives taken by them.

Simplifying is a very important point in our project. Europe must concentrate on what’s essential, i.e. making life easier for its citizens and its businesses. That’s the task of this seminar and I’m extremely pleased – and this is very significant – that it’s taking place with our Dutch friends.

The Netherlands is going to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the start of next year. It knows that it can count on France, given how much they’re at each other’s side in all the everyday work and for the major decisions: it’s a huge asset. And, without simplifying anything, I’ll conclude with words from Leonardo da Vinci: “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. So let’s be simple, which doesn’t mean “let’s be simplistic”. (…)./.

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