Wednesday 3 June 2009

The Service Directive and European tenders: A local administration's perspective

Recently I was talking to someone I know for a long time, working on a higher level of a local administration.

We talked about changes they had to implement due to the Service Directive: The costs this implies. The argumentation process needed to convince the local councillors to actually implement the technical systems needed. The process until today.

On the administrative level, they were aware that there was something going on connected to a Service Directive for some time already, but they didn't really notice.

In the load of day-by-day work they have to deal with they were not able to follow the whole process, to care for its details, its implications. Legal and consultative documents come in by several hundred pages, who can read all of them on the local level?

Actually, they were thinking that the Service Directive was about European tender procedures. And European tender procedures were stupid anyway:

Why did they need to hold a European tender for the provision of food services in the local schools and kindergardens? Okay, Italian food for the children could be nice, but in the end, there was no company from another country reacting.

Another European tender for a fire engine had to be repeated because - if I understood correctly - the person responsible in Brussels had forgotten to publish it and when they found out, he or she was on summer holidays. No one else could do it.

European tenders were also stupid because local administrations would like to use their scarce resources to support local businesses, so important for the social structures in socially disadvantaged regions.

So they thought the Service Directive thing sounded just like the same, because it involved Europe-wide administrative procedures for something that they used to do locally. But now they know better. Now they have to implement it until the end of the year. And it is not the same as tender procedures. It is the other way round, because they will have to deal with requests from the outside (like a Portuguese woodworker wanting to offer his services in their city).

But only now they are investing time to study the directive in depth - because it has to be done. Because they realised that it is something quite different to the tender regulations. That it costs additional money, changes administrative procedures, including the introduction of a regional European coordinator they would have to report to in the future. That the preparations involve weekly meetings on the regional level for one of the staff members.

And it's fully on the shoulders of the administrators. The mayors don't care, because for them this is the work of the technical staff - until the day that investments have to made and until the mayors finds out the effects on the local budgets. And yes, the costs are coming, no matter whether it is a small or a larger administration.

If I had to summarise our discussion, I would say that for them, the European Union makes regulation that almost nobody on the local level can notice when formulated, that costs money and brings stress when it is decided, and that helps only very rare and strange cases of Europe-wide activities.

The only way to sell it to democratically elected local bodies is to tell them that these measures actually help local businesses, too - which can be true to a certain extend, although this is not the intention of the regulation.

When EU regulation is formulated, the time to react on requests for comments or amendments is usually very short. And it depends on the quality of the staff at the association of local authorities, their summaries and explanations whether the local level actually notice whether something affects them.

Having this in mind, they are not surprised that the interest in the European Parliament elections is so weak. They can already tell because the number of mail voters registered is extremely low. And only old people are showing up to register for mail voting.

When we talked about the European elections, the only party we spoke about were the "Violets", a minor German party that runs on the topic of "spiritual development" which appeared to be funny. Jointly we imagined barefooted European Commissioners smoking pot trying to reform the European Union.

So in the end of the afternoon, we had at least had a good laugh on the expenses of the European Union. The Union should take this as a success!