The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council which took place in Brussels on 5 March 2009, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired by Alexandra Vondra, Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs.
The meeting started with discussion of the Commission’s single market review progress report. Member states agreed conclusions on the single market as a source of competitiveness and engine of economic recovery and that protectionism should be avoided in all circumstances. Single market priorities included rapid implementation of the Services Directive and Small Business Act. I emphasised three key points: to protect the integrity of the single market; to continue to improve the functioning of the single market; and to identify priority areas for action through targeted reforms.
The Commission presented a key issues paper on the Lisbon strategy for EU competitiveness. In discussion, member states wanted short-term responses to the economic crisis to be consistent with long-term structural reforms. Industrial and economic support measures should be co-ordinated and respect single market rules. Member states agreed that priorities for competitiveness were SME access to finance, innovation and research, reducing administrative burdens and the energy internal market. I stressed the need for globally open markets, completing the Doha world trade round, reviewing the EU budget, active labour market policies and for low carbon investment. The key issues paper was formally adopted after some discussion on the text.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed the economic crisis and the automotive sector. This continued in the afternoon session where member states agreed conclusions on the single market, avoiding discrimination and protectionism, as well as access to finance. The importance of research and innovation and underpinning infrastructure to foster green products and technologies were highlighted.
I emphasised the need for co-ordination at EU level to respond to the crisis in the European automotive industry, to avoid national protectionist measures and for European Investment Bank funding to the EU automotive industry to be sectorally and geographically balanced. I also said that the UK had reservations about the viability and value for money of vehicle scrappage schemes, but welcomed flexibility for member states to implement schemes as appropriate. In discussion the Commission raised concerns about the impact of the EU-Korea free trade agreement and in response I highlighted the wider benefits for the EU. The draft Council conclusions on the automotive industry were adopted, with the presidency concluding that there will be a further debate on the sector at the next Council in May.
The presidency briefly introduced its progress report on better regulation, highlighting the fact that over half of burdens come from Europe. The Commission was supportive of the report and said that better regulation was a top priority to help overcome the economic crisis.
Under any other business, a brief update was provided on EU enlargement, which the presidency said has been beneficial for all, and the Internal Market and Consumer Market Scoreboards. The Commission said that member states would be involved in a mid to long-term strategy for the Transatlantic Economic Council before the EU-US summit in June. Regarding the external dimension of EU competitiveness, the Commission emphasised the need for regulatory convergence and the benefits of multilateral agreements. On the Small Business Act package of EU measures to support small businesses, the Commission stressed the importance of implementation in view of the current economic crisis.