Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Three strikes and you’re out for the European Commission

October 2010

We have been less than impressed in these pages by the European Commission’s past efforts to stamp its mark on corporate responsibility. Two insipid white papers in 2002 and 2006 – each followed by a few unambitious, underachieving initiatives – provided scant evidence that Brussels held strong convictions on this issue and intended to take an active part. Yet now we hear that the EC is planning a third communication on the subject, and that it wants to make this one count (see page three).

In the light of experience, news of preparations for another EC corporate responsibility foray must be greeted with scepticism. We do not doubt the good intentions of the prime mover, Antonio Tajani, the commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, who argues that a response is needed to a world financial crisis that has eroded trust in European business. He is right in believing that corporate responsibility has a crucial role to play in restoring that trust.

But even if we ignore the sound of bolting horses and flapping stable doors, is the EC now the right body to take on this job? It might have been tempting to think so when the commission started to draw up its first communication. Back then, the corporate social responsibility movement was at a formative stage, and there was room for an EC contribution. Ultimately, however, Brussels failed to come up with a vision of what it could usefully add, beyond being vaguely supportive of what was already happening. Its second white paper merely confirmed that weak position, leaving most businesses to drift away in search of alternative inspiration.

As a result, the EC has lost almost as much credibility in the CSR field as European big business has lost public trust. It will be difficult for it to regain enough ground to make people sit up and take notice of what it might say in a white paper sometime next year. Today, the CSR field is significantly more crowded than it was when the commission began to contemplate its role. Plenty of other organizations, governments, standards bodies, and multi-stakeholder alliances have filled the void that it might once have occupied. That the commission will set out how it can ‘support and influence’ existing international corporate responsibility instruments implicitly acknowledges that it has missed the opportunity to occupy the pole position.

Of course, a bold, far-sighted white paper that projects a proactive perspective for the commission based on light-touch regulation and enough money to support new initiatives could change the perception of the EC as a mere bystander in this area. But are we likely to get that? Don’t hold your breath.

Peter Mason | Europe | Government role


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