The EU Competitiveness Council took place in Brussels on 30 and 31 May 2012. I represented the UK on research issues on 31 May, and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) who is responsible for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, represented the UK on the internal market and industry issues on 30 May. A summary of those discussions follows.
The main internal market and industry issues discussed on 30 May were: the competitiveness of enterprises and small and medium-sized enterprises (COSME) programme, mutual recognition of professional qualifications (MRPQ), digital single market and governance of the single market, the public procurement directive, online and alternative dispute resolution, and the unified patent court.
A partial general approach was agreed on the COSME proposals. Agreement covered everything except the budget figures, which will be inserted when the overall 2014-20 EU budget is agreed. The UK argued against the suggestion to remove provisions in article 19(2), which is a key provision to strengthen governance arrangements, and also argued against strengthening the tourism provisions.
An orientation debate was held on MRPQ. The UK intervened to call for more transparency and mutual evaluation of regulated professions to be carried out sooner rather than later, and to note a concern about any move to six years and 5,500 hours’, training for doctors. We were supported by several member states on the transparency point, and the Commission agreed to carry out a pilot transparency exercise.
Over lunch, there was a discussion on Single Market Act I and Single Market Act II. The presidency focused discussions on two questions regarding the challenges facing Europe relating to growth, and what actions should be included in the new Single Market Act. The UK intervened to state that we needed to create the right conditions for private sector growth by, for example, putting into place a proportionate and enabling regulatory framework, inspiring confidence in businesses and consumers to invest and spend, and by removing the low level barriers and frustrations that take time and energy to overcome.
On priorities for the forthcoming Single Market Act II, we stated the need to fully implement the services directive, see a programme of single market governance enforcement measures, the need for prioritisation of the digital single market and for an ambitious package of better regulation measures.
The Council agreed conclusions on the digital single market and governance of the single market without discussion.
A second orientation debate focused on two aspects of the public procurement dossier—e-procurement and governance. The presidency opened the debate by outlining its proposal to remove the governance structures from the proposals (focusing on tasks to be carried out by member states instead) and recalling the need to be ambitious and move to e-procurement by 2016. On e-procurement the UK, along with nine other member states, argued for a more gradual transition, noting that there are still some technological issues to overcome. Other member states called for a shorter deadline, whereas others supported the 2016 deadline. The presidency concluded that given the variation in views a 2016 deadline may appear to be appropriate. On governance, most member states supported the presidency approach, and we specifically noted our opposition to the reciprocity instrument.
Ministers agreed a general approach on online and alternative dispute resolution (ODR and ADR). The presidency had tabled an amendment that excluded Government-funded further and higher education from the scope of the directive, which was an important UK objective. The UK intervened to support the text, and to explain why the exclusion was needed and why it would not affect other member states.
The final substantive point concerned the unified patent court, which was scheduled for political agreement. No new proposals or amendments regarding the draft agreement were put forward in advance of the Competitiveness Council and, while there was a brief discussion on the location of the central court with the UK setting out the case for London, there was no change in member state positions, nor was there any discussion on substantive policy issues. We expect this issue to be discussed again at the European Council in June.
There were three AOB points on internal market and industry. The first concerned state aid modernisation. The Commission set out its aims for reform of the state aid regime over the next 18 months. Debate was not anticipated, but several member states intervened to support the thrust of the initiative. The UK intervened to emphasise the need to protect the single market and focusing efforts on limiting distortive aid.
The other AOB points covered the work programme of the forthcoming Cypriot presidency, and an intervention from the Lithuanian delegation regarding the like-minded paper on the single market.
The main research and space items discussed on 31 May were: proposals for a regulation establishing Horizon 2020; progress reports on the proposed regulation laying down the rules for participation and dissemination in Horizon 2020, the Council decision establishing the specific programme implementing Horizon 2020 and the Council regulation on the research and training programme of the European Atomic Energy Community complementing Horizon 2020; progress reports on the proposed decision on the strategic innovation agenda for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and amending regulation establishing the European Institute of Innovation and Technology; and adoption of Council conclusions on European innovation partnerships.
Council agreed a partial general approach on the Horizon 2020 core regulation. Agreement did not cover the budget figures, which will be inserted when the overall 2014-20 EU budget is agreed. I intervened to support retention of excellence as the primary funding criterion, the provisions in relation to funding of embryonic stem cell research and maintaining an appropriate balance between funding different sizes of project. I urged the Commission to bring the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) back within the multi-annual financial framework. I argued for participants to have the option of being funded on the basis of actual indirect costs.
Ministers took note of presidency progress reports on the remaining Horizon 2020 legislation (the regulation laying down the rules for participation, the decision establishing the specific programme for implementing Horizon 2020, the regulation on the research and training programme of Euratom and the decision and regulation relating to the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)).
The Council endorsed conclusions on European innovation partnerships (EIPs) restating the importance of engaging member states in the process at an early stage and ensuring that EIP steering boards included balanced representation.
Under the AOB items, the Cypriot Minister set out his plans to make further progress on the Horizon 2020 legislative package during their presidency.
The Council also received an update from the Commission on the development of the innovation headline indicator, and a report on the work of the Strategic Forum for International Science and Technology Co-operation (SFIC) in 2011-12.
During lunch Ministers discussed the results achieved by the EIT since its establishment in 2008, and mechanisms for improving the links between higher education, research and innovation (the so-called “knowledge triangle”). I intervened in support of delegations calling for a more realistic budget than proposed by the Commission in view of the fact that the EIT was still a relatively unproven instrument.