My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 22 January 2008. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury attended for the UK. The items on the agenda were as follows:
Presidency Work Programme
The Slovenian presidency of the council presented its proposed work programme for ECOFIN in the first half of 2008, which was followed by an exchange of views. As part of the agreed three-presidency approach, the Slovenian presidency will take forward the common priorities started under the German and Portuguese presidencies. These are ensuring efficient and effective management of economic policy; taking further steps toward the completion of the internal market; and improving the quality of the public finances. In addition, the Slovenian presidency will address economic reform issues ahead of the 2008 spring European Council and financial stability issues following recent developments in financial markets. The UK supports the proposed work programme.
Introduction of the Euro in Cyprus and Malta
Ministers exchanged views on the introduction of the euro in Cyprus and Malta on 1 January 2008, following presentations from the European Commission and the Cypriot and Maltese delegations. The European Commission will continue to monitor progress in these countries, and will publish a report on the change-over in Cyprus and Malta in the near future.
Preparation of the European Council (13-14 March 2008)
The next three-year cycle: strategic report, broad economic policy guidelines 2008-10, country-specific integrated recommendations, and the community Lisbon programme.
Ministers held an orientation debate on a range of documents related to the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs. These documents included the Commission's recently published strategic report reviewing the latest three year-cycle of the strategy, proposals for broad economic policy guidelines, country-specific recommendations and the community Lisbon programme.
Ministers agreed that the existing priorities of the strategy (knowledge and innovation, employment, the business environment, and energy and climate change) remained valid and that no fundamental overhaul of the guidelines was required. Member states should therefore prioritise the implementation of the agreed reforms. March ECOFIN will return to these issues and will prepare a report on these documents for the spring European Council.
Single Market Review
The council agreed a set of conclusions on the single market review. Ministers agreed priority areas for action, which include the rapid implementation of the services directive, efforts to liberalise network industries and promoting the free movement of knowledge and innovation. The UK welcomes the focus on these areas, which should help build a market-based, flexible, and outward-facing single market. These conclusions will inform discussions at the spring European Council.
Contribution to the Spring European Council Conclusions: Key Issues Paper
Ministers discussed the broad themes of a key issues paper, which will form ECOFIN's contribution to the spring European Council. Drafting of the paper will now continue at official level through the Economic Policy Committee (EPC) and Economic and Finance Committee (EFC). Ministers will adopt a final version of this paper at the February ECOFIN.
Single Euro Payments Area
Council agreed a set of conclusions on the single euro payments area (SEPA), an initiative led by the EU banking industry to develop pan-European payment schemes for payments in euros. Although the UK is not a member of the eurozone, it is supportive of the ongoing work to deliver SEPA, which it hopes will bring real benefits for business and consumers.