The Competitiveness Council met recently in Brussels. Baroness Neville-Rolfe represented the UK at the Council on 28 November (internal market) and I represented the UK on 29 November (research).
The Council on day one had a full agenda with key decisions concluded on geo-blocking, the single market strategy and the unified patent court.
The internal market day of the Council began with the approval of legislative and non-legislative A items. On the approval of the EU annual budget the UK abstained.
The first agenda item was a discussion on geo-blocking introduced by Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip. Following a discussion, member states, including the UK, accepted the text of the proposed regulation and the Council agreed a general approach.
The next item was a debate on the single market strategy and start-up initiative introduced by the Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elzbiet Bienkowska. The UK intervened to strongly support the single market strategy and welcomed, alongside a number of member states, an Irish-sponsored like-minded letter calling for greater ambition on services—which we had also signed. A number of member states welcomed the Commission’s work on start-up and scale-up, highlighting in particular problems around access to finance.
In a change to the order of proceedings the Council then took two further items before lunch. Firstly, Commissioner Bienkowska presented the annual report on the work of the SME envoy network. She reported the work had been particularly useful in preparing for the Commission’s start-up and scale-up initiative published the previous week. The Council took note of the report.
The presidency then highlighted the outcome of a conference on the collaborative economy following the debate on the collaborative economy at the previous Competitiveness Council in September. Commissioner Bienkowska said the Commission was now considering various issues where national law might conflict with its recent guidance and might issue a series of pilot letters in the near future.
Over lunch, Ministers were joined by the President of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), Dieter Zetsche. Commissioners Bienkowska and Oettinger led a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the automotive industry. The UK highlighted the work being undertaken in the UK by the centre for connected and autonomous vehicles, and outlined the planned investment of £100 million which was announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement.
The next agenda item concerned a discussion of the significance of industrial policy in the Commission’s work programme in 2017. Several member states called on the Commission to demonstrate support for European industry by producing a communication on an EU industrial strategy in 2017. The UK highlighted the importance of delivering the actions in the single market and digital single market strategies, and set out the approach being taken to deliver the UK’s own industrial strategy.
The Commission then introduced CPST check-up on skills. Member states largely agreed with the Commission on the challenges, in particular on digital skills.
The next item was a discussion on the unitary patent and unified patent court (UPC). The UK confirmed its intent to proceed with ratification, and anticipated this being completed according to the existing preparatory timetable. The UK was clear that this decision did not pre-empt our objectives in the forthcoming negotiations and is without prejudice to the UKs future position on the jurisdiction of the CJEU once we have left the EU. This news was welcomed by Commissioner Bienkowska and several member states, who all emphasised the importance of having the UK in the UPC and bringing the court into force as soon as possible in the first half of 2017.
The presidency then presented the state of play of the proposal to improve the type approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles. Commissioner Bienkowska said that further progress had not been made, despite the political commitments following the controversies around Volkswagen last year. The UK intervened to support the Commission and to push for a greater level of ambition from the Council.
The next item was a discussion on proposed regulation of consumer protection laws. The presidency highlighted the substantial work that had been undertaken on this file, and reiterated its aim to reach a negotiating mandate as soon as possible. The Commissioner for Justice Consumers and Gender equality Vera Jourová supported the presidency in seeking to reach a mandate. The UK intervened to stress that this was an important and complex file which needed to return to Competitiveness Council under the Maltese presidency for a political discussion.
The next item was a presentation of the Commission’s notice on the biotechnological directive introduced by Commissioner Bienkowska. The notice aimed to clarify the relationship between patents and plant breeders’ rights. The UK did not intervene.
Commissioner Oettinger opened a discussion of the Commission’s proposals for reforming EU copyright laws. The Commissioner explained the need to provide a modernised copyright framework for the digital age, reflecting the changes to storage, distribution and consumption of content in recent years. The UK welcomes efforts to modernise the EU copyright framework and is consulting with interested stakeholders.
The Hungarian delegation then presented information on the competitiveness aspects of the European pillar of social rights. The Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen noted that balanced economic growth was necessary for social progress. Some member states intervened to emphasise that the pillar should not be legally binding on member states.
The Council concluded with a presentation by the Maltese on priorities for their upcoming presidency. In relation to the Competitiveness Council, these priorities primarily concern the deepening of the single market and making progress on the digital single market.
Day two began with a debate on the Commission’s recently published space strategy for Europe. The Commission is aiming for this to be broad and inclusive, reaffirming Europe’s place as a global space power. All member states welcomed the EU’s strategy. It is a good fit to UK priorities for growing the space sector.
A number of space issues where raised in the discussion. The Arianne 6 programme was highlighted as important, with some member states reminding the Commission of the need for cost-effectiveness to avoid unreasonable cost increases. It was felt important that the EU-ESA relationship takes advantage of their respective competences. There was also a call to assist those member states who currently have limited engagement with the sector.
The UK intervened to welcome the space strategy, recognising that EU systems could be used for defence and security objectives, but they had to remain civil systems under civilian control. The UK also highlighted the opportunities to our commercial sectors, and that space weather and the security of space systems were risk areas that needed to be properly understood.
Council conclusions on early-stage researchers were adopted without amendment.
The last substantive agenda item was the Commission’s report on the implementation of the strategy for international co-operation in research and innovation. The discussion highlighted examples of the benefits of international co-operation. The UK stressed three key points—the need for EU research funding to remain focused on excellence and open to the world; that the UK would continue to collaborate with the Commission on science diplomacy in countries where relations were strained; and third, called for the Commission to ensure that the rules were updated to address problems which had led to a reduction in third country participation—eg liability clauses. This message was echoed by several member states.
A number of member states were supportive of PRIMA, a €400 million programme that seeks to promote food security and water supply in the Mediterranean and is a priority for the incoming Maltese presidency. Bonus 2, a programme on marine research, was also raised as a positive example of potential multilateral collaboration over shared challenges.
For AOB items, the Commission discussed the launch of an open science policy platform, which will look at best practice, develop EU-wide guidelines for open science delivery and promote open science. This work may inform how the “open science” agenda is implemented in the FP9 programme—The successor to Horizon 2020. Many member states were supportive.
Next, the Commission gave an overview of their proposed €1 billion funding programme for quantum technologies. This was followed by an announcement that the “Accelerating Clean Energy” communication will be published on 1 December.
The presidency then gave a read out from a conference focused on the European bio-economy that took place in October in Bratislava.
Finally, the Commission welcomed the Portuguese delegation’s presentation on developing an infrastructure to promote north-south Atlantic research collaboration.
The meeting concluded with a presentation from the upcoming Maltese presidency on its priorities in research—including the PRIMA initiative.