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EU Competitiveness Council (3-4 December)

Volume 502: debated on Monday 14 December 2009

The EU Competitiveness Council took place in Brussels on 3 and 4 December 2009. The following is a summary of those discussions.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, represented the UK on 3 December on EU consumer issues, while on 4 December I represented the UK on EU patents issues and the Minister responsible for Business and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), attended the ministerial lunchtime debate on General Motors/Opel. Andy Lebrecht, the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, represented the UK when a Minister was not in attendance.

On 3 December the main areas of discussion were research and consumer affairs. On research, the UK argued for a more sophisticated approach to setting targets for the level and impact of R and D investment. Many countries agreed, however the Commission felt abandoning the current 3 per cent. headline target would send a negative signal to business and research communities.

There was strong backing for any EU Lisbon strategy successor to encourage better links between researchers and innovators across Europe. The UK emphasised the need to lever more private sector investment in innovation. There was also broad agreement to reduce bureaucracy for applicants and participants in EU R and D framework programmes.

Conclusions on a new joint European research programme on Alzheimer’s and for other research items were adopted. However decisions to reform crest, the high level group on EU science policy issues were delayed until 2010.

When debating the draft Consumer Rights Directive, the UK was keen to see fully harmonised solutions across the whole directive that were acceptable to the majority of member states, and supported harmonisation where it could be shown that divergent rules create barriers to trade, though not at the expense of important consumer protections, such as the right to reject faulty goods and receive a full refund. Discussions on the draft directive will continue under the Spanish EU presidency in the first half of 2010.

On 4 December agreement was reached in principle on a general approach on a community patent regulation and Council conclusions regarding a European patent court, patent fees and partnership working between the European Patent Office and national patent offices. The presidency, Commission and several member states acknowledged there would still be difficult discussions ahead before there was full completion, but the UK said this step was long overdue and it was vital to move forward.

At a ministerial lunchtime discussion, Ministers heard an update from General Motors/Opel on its plans for European restructuring. There were no formal conclusions. No agreement was made on the proposal for a European private company statute. It will now be for the Commission and future EU presidencies to decide if and when to come back to this.

Ministers agreed Council conclusions after debating eco-efficient industry policy as a contribution to the revised EU Lisbon strategy. The Commission felt the EU Competitiveness Council had a vital role to play in future deliberations on a Lisbon strategy successor, and these should take account of areas such as climate change, demography, and finding the right balance between competitiveness and high quality jobs.

The UK stressed the importance of the EU being competitive at a global level and of strengthening the EU single market. The UK also stated that the temporary state aid framework should end as planned in December 2010, and that the EU should exploit and invest more in R and D and innovation to ensure a competitive, modern and diverse industrial base in Europe. Many delegations expressed a desire for a more powerful voice for the Competitiveness Council and considered it important to give greater priority to green technologies.

For other items, conclusions on better regulation were adopted as drafted. UK and Malta tabled a joint minute statement on gambling which expressed concerns over the presidency progress report. They requested no further discussion in Council as the current Commission had no intention to legislate.

Under any other business points, the Commission reported on the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative. It was felt unlikely this would ever be profit making, but would however be strategically beneficial for Europe. When giving a progress report on the construction products directive, the Commission singled out the simplified procedures for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) as important in reducing administrative burdens. The C ommission also updated the Council on the recent Google books settlement.

Spain presented priorities for their forthcoming EU presidency (January to June 2010) which will be innovation, standardisation and business and SME competitiveness. Future industrial policy would be considered in the context of the crisis. There would be a new EU strategy on electric vehicles, to be discussed at the informal Competitiveness Council on 8 and 9 February in San Sebastian, Spain. The presidency would promote socially responsible tourism, and address the EU’s target of a 25 per cent. reduction in administrative burdens by 2012, as well as implementation of the EU services directive.