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Quo vadis evidence-based policymaking?

October 12th 2020


The Better Regulation agenda has stimulated tangible yet uneven progress in evidence for policymaking in the European Union.

As a top priority, balanced and robust evidence for policies such as the European Green Deal is essential to ensure that they meet the EU’s objectives.

Recently published material for two upcoming Green Deal legislative proposals prejudges the impacts before compilation of evidence, presenting unbalanced assessments.

Results from macro-economic modelling and consultation, presented in the Climate Target Plan impact assessment, lead to questions about their consistency and applicability.

These trends raise substantial concerns about the effectiveness and credibility of upcoming policies. We welcome feedback and further debate on these issues, to help encourage a robust and credible framework and evidence base for future policy choices.


Much has happened in the policy world in the last year, especially the last six months. It is appropriate to take a step back to review one of the fundamental tenets of EU policymaking. Evidence-based legislation remains a firm commitment of the European Commission. While there appears currently less explicit focus on it than in the previous Commission, the rules, guidelines and structures remain in place. As the pressure increases on policymakers to deliver effective results in an uncertain world, the value of robust and balanced evidence is becoming ever more important. With many conflicting signals, various ways forward being promoted and divergent political views, the facts, data and analysis show the path to effective and credible legislation.

In our opinion, there has been a slow, concrete, though inconsistent, improvement in the evidence presented for EU policymaking over the last few years. To a great extent that was engendered by VP Timmermans’ Better Regulation agenda of 2015 and the structural changes therein, in particular the requirement for inception impact assessments (IIAs) and the strengthening of the Regulatory Scrutiny Board (RSB).

However, more recent developments, mostly related to the European Green Deal, led by EVP Timmermans, raise questions about the continuity of this trend. The Green Deal is at the very top of the Commission’s policy priorities, rightly reflecting the current political imperative.

Great concern is caused by the IIAs published in August for two planned pieces of Green Deal legislation, namely on renewable energy and energy efficiency (see our review). The adherence to neutral, fact-based language, that had previously been improving in many IIAs, is absent for those two initiatives. The introductions contains prejudgements of the impacts. The objectives and policy options are not presented in a clear manner that would enable stakeholders to understand the plans and intentions. Most worryingly, in each case the section on expected impacts describes exclusively positive economic and employment effects, before any specific evidence or data on costs and benefits have been compiled. If the content of these IIAs is a precursor of the subsequent legislative impact assessments, that legislation will have an unstable evidence base, lacking robustness and therefore credibility.

Some of the relevant evidence has subsequently been published in the impact assessment for the 17th September communication on “Stepping up Europe’s 2030 climate ambition”. The key evidence in this document is generated by macro-economic modelling of energy parameters, GDP and employment, for which a number of different models are used. As we have highlighted many times before, these models are not open for fully detailed scrutiny and a reconciliation of the results by stakeholders is not possible. For some of the GDP and employment modelling, significantly different and in some cases incompatible results are generated by different models. The impact assessment’s discussion of these differing results does not enable an actionable conclusion.

Another issue relates to the presentation of consultation results. As is well-established Commission practice, the quoting of statistical outcomes of the public consultation is frequent in impact assessments. For example, statements such as “…a large majority of public consultation replies endorsed…” are included amongst the evidence. However, consultation results themselves present only evidence of opinions, not technical or economic facts and analysis. They can be considered equally important, as they represent a snapshot of the opinions of stakeholders, who will eventually be subject to the impacts of the legislation. This gives them political weight, but they should be clearly differentiated from prima facie evidence.

Another reason for not treating consultation results as evidence is their lack of coherent weighting. A majority of respondents may not, in aggregate, represent a majority of those parties for which they speak. Each single submission, whether from an individual, small company or association, or from a large federation or NGO, is weighted identically in the Commission’s evaluation, thereby generating an inaccurate picture. Further, since the sample is self-selected, by those choosing to respond, it cannot be representative of all impacted stakeholders.

The above points on the impact assessment are, almost verbatim, the issues that the Impact Assessment Institute has been identifying for several years. They merit repeating, since they diminish the legitimacy of the presented evidence, to the detriment of the eventual legislation’s effectiveness. However, the most worrying trend is found in the two inception impact assessments.

In the above considerations, there is also an inherent message about the interaction between the technical and the political aspects. The evidence should be compiled independently of the political objectives, even when performed by an institution, in this case the Commission, that is also responsible for implementing those political objectives. Whether or not the evidence demonstrates beneficial impacts of the chosen policy, it should be presented alongside the proposal, to enable political decisions to be made about the policy in full knowledge of the facts.

As ever, the Impact Assessment Institute will closely monitor the development of all EU policies requiring impact assessment, and signal both good practice and shortcomings, especially when critical to the success of key pieces of legislation. We welcome input, insights and criticism from interested institutions and stakeholders, to generate a healthy debate on the issues we have raised. We will also review and comment upon the Better Regulation communication due in October, in the context of its primary objective, to support robust evidence for policymaking.

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