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Successful transitions: Encouraging and innovating before prohibiting

Too many rules kill the rules

[This editorial is also available in Ukrainian.]

Keen to respond to the environmental challenge, but carried away by their zealous enthusiasm, their wish to be in tune with public opinion and their claim to be ahead of the rest of the planet, European leaders have been busy regulating, legislating and banning things for the last three years.

Setting time-limited ultimatums on the use of plant protection products, internal combustion engines, aviation fuel and the oil consumed by the world's largest commercial fleet have all seemed to them to be quasi-natural necessities in the fight against global warming, whatever the situation of the economic sector concerned.

Successful transitions are both difficult and essential. Dealing with the climate challenge seems to be more popular and fashionable than preparing for the digital transition, which is at least as important for the future of our societies. Approaching it exclusively in terms of bans, constraints and obligations is not the best way to succeed.

The digital and climate transitions are shaking up lifestyles and production methods to such an extent that they can only be successful if all the players are included. Governments will not succeed on their own; citizens and economic players will drive them forward with the support of public authorities.

Of course, constraints are sometimes necessary, especially in the fight against economic giants who are stronger than governments. In these cases, the European institutions are most pertinent. For example, to impose standards of respect for privacy or to regulate social networks that have become uncontrollable except by those who manipulate them.

But when it comes to transforming the economy, it will be the companies that succeed, and when it comes to consumption, it will be the citizens.

Europeans are too fond of rules. In particular, they have abused them by imposing a Green Deal on their farmers, which would force the latter to reduce their production by 10-20% at a time when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is warning that agricultural production needs to increase by at least 58% by 2050 to feed the world's population.

What has happened is a game of tit-for-tat between national governments and European institutions eager to be the most environmentally friendly. In a conditioned reflex, national governments have rushed to use their legislative powers, showing themselves to be greener in Brussels and Strasbourg than in their own capitals, to the point of accepting an unprecedented 'taxonomy', a catalogue of authorised products, which is close to technocratic absurdity in its precision, totally discretionary in its definitions and certainly undemocratic in its elaboration.

The European Parliament, whose representativeness is distorted by the over-representation of small Member States and political groups, has often been keen to push matters further. As for the NGO lobbies, most of which are all working along the same lines and making excessive use of fear, if they are to be listened to, it is important not to overestimate their legitimacy at the risk of abusing the openness of the European institutions.

There is an urgent need to return to common sense if we want to transform our societies, to avoid a backlash from citizens and the penalty of economic decline. Elsewhere, in the United States for example, incentives, tax aid or subsidies are preferred, with phenomenal success that casts doubt on and endangers the European model.

To make a success of the transition, we need to encourage rather than prohibit, we need to innovate before regulating. We need to convince before coercing, and sometimes we need to support before demanding results.

Economic and social players have already realised that change is needed. Public decision-makers must not cling to the old ways of thinking, seeing ever more restrictive legislation as the alpha and omega of their responsibilities.

The revolt of European farmers against excessive regulation will only be the first if the powers that be continue in this way. Too many rules kill rules. Freedom and responsibility are often more effective in tackling the major challenges facing humanity.