A real opportunity? – What is the ‘Review of EU competences’ about? What is in it for civil society?

Virag Martin was NCVO’s European and international trainee between February 2013 and December 2014. Virag has left NCVO but her posts are kept here for reference purposes.

Those who have been following European affairs know that David Cameron’s recent speech on Europe was not unexpected. Building on the Coalition Government’s long-planned consideration of EU reforms, the FCO launched the Review of Balance of EU Competences in July 2012.

This review aims to deepen understanding of the UK’s membership of the EU. The assessment will cover 32 different policy areas and runs throughout 2013/2014. Key Government departments are actively consulting with non-governmental experts, businesses, voluntary organisations and other individuals.

Key Aims of the Review

Latest discussions suggest the burning questions are as follows: ‘What is the real reason for evaluating the UK’s membership? What will the Government use the outcomes for? Is it cherry-picking or a serious audit aimed to improve European mechanisms?’

I believe that this exercise can provide a comprehensive analysis that could bring potential benefits to the UK and long-awaited reforms to the EU as a whole. Based on personal experience (working on our response on Internal Market), the review could bring some much-needed reforms. Europe has been addressing the challenges of the current crisis (more or less successfully), but now we have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and tackle problems collectively.

We cannot deny the fact that there is an urgent need for public debate. What are our actual benefits? How exactly could the EU be reformed and improved? The review is an opportunity to provide with an overview of data, figures, real-world experience and case studies.

Participating in this key moment of policy-making in order to shape the UK strategy and influence the EU’s future direction can offer an opportunity for our members.

Our response

The first Semester (Autumn 2012-Spring 2013) covered calls for evidence on the Internal Market, Taxation, Animal Health, Welfare and Food Safety, Health, International Development and Foreign Policy.

Voluntary organisations are particularly affected by and concerned with European regulatory policies. NCVO, through its Chief Executive’s role on the European Economic and Social Committee, contributes regularly to EU policy reviews, i.e. opinions on State Aid rules, evaluations on procurement for better service delivery or recommendations for social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

In our response to the Internal Market, we highlight key changes in the EU such as:

  1. Simplification of EU and UK procurement rules to ensure more flexibility, reduced red-tape and administrative costs in implementation at local level;
  2. Supporting the growth of the social economy in the UK, as part of the EU’s Single Market. Not only by increasing supply of social investment capital, but also by supporting the profile and role of social enterprises and charities in delivering public services.

Our two examples based on procurement regulations and social innovation that could be advantageous to English voluntary organisations are:

  1. Both the UK (via its Social Value Act) and EU (through its Europe 2020 Strategy and Single Market Act) are working in the same vein towards common goals: to strengthen social values in market economies and to establish purchasing power of local communities (through appropriate public procurement rules), and
  2. Engaging with the EU Social Business Initiative (of which social investment and innovation are fundamental elements), UK officials and stakeholders are able to safeguard Britain’s interests, support development of the UK social investment market and establish a British ‘benchmark’ of social innovation across borders.

Although the debate could appear overly technical, there is one more example that reminds us of the relevance of getting EU regulations right in the UK.

There is some evidence in the area of public procurement regulations to suggest the UK does at times go beyond EU requirements and is involved in so-called gold-plating. Gold-plating refers to over-implementation when national application goes beyond the minimum necessary to comply with an EU directive. In Britain, there is a strong culture of risk-averseness and inflexibility in public contracting authorities. Officers seem to have been more worried about applying rules and fulfilling EU requirements rather than assessing service delivery outcomes, and in turn the potential for vast innovation in services. This is a costly exercise and wastes economic resources.

NCVO review of internal market (PDF)

Next steps:

Currently, the Government is evaluating the responses for the First Semester. Detailed reports will be published late 2013.

The calls for evidence for the Second Semester can be found on the UK Government website.

Your views?

  • What is civil society’s role/advantage/disadvantage in engaging in the debate?
  • Could you share hands-on experience?
  • Does cross-border cooperation boost/hinder growth of English civil society organisations?
  • Do you have comparative experience of other Member States?

Get involved and tell NCVO. Please drop me an e-mail or reach us on twitter @EU_FundingNCVO.

Virag Martin has recently joined NCVO’s EU & International Team and is responsible for collating views on this Review.

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