My honourable friend the Economic and Business Minister (Ian Pearson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
The following Statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council which took place in Brussels on 1 December 2008, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired by M Hervé Novelli, French Minister of State responsible for businesses and foreign trade, and Jean-Pierre Jouyet, French Minister of State responsible for European affairs.
The meeting started with consideration of intellectual property issues. The Commission emphasised the need for a better, more cost-effective patent system and the role that the Competitiveness Council can play in boosting innovation, competitiveness and economic recovery through agreement of the Community patent proposals during either the Czech or Swedish presidencies. Member states agreed on the principle, but remained divided on the substance. I emphasised the need for the Commission to undertake further economic analysis, particularly on the level of fees, and invited the Commission to present a negotiating mandate on the European Patent Court proposals at the earliest opportunity.
Following this, the French presidency presented a report on gambling and betting policies in member states. It proposed further discussion of this issue in council, with a particular focus on illegal gambling, addiction, crime prevention (including money-laundering) and consumer protection. I emphasised that the report should have gone further in setting out the potential benefits of effective regulation as opposed to prohibition and questioned the appropriateness of further work in the council, stressing that further clarity and improvement of standards could be achieved through the Commission continuing to enforce the treaty provisions, member states completing reviews of national legislation, and an improved dialogue between regulators and the sector itself. I tabled a minute statement (jointly with Malta) to this effect.
The main agenda item was a presentation by the European Commission on its communication on the response to the economic crisis. Member states were invited to respond during a discussion over lunch, although no formal conclusions were proposed or agreed. The main themes raised were the automotive industry, appropriate levels of state aid, the need for investment in infrastructure, and supporting the need to advance structural fund spend. Access to capital was highlighted as key to limiting the spread of the financial crisis.
The Commission went on to stress the important role of small and medium enterprises in the economic recovery of Europe. It highlighted the need to ensure access to finance and reducing administrative burdens, in particular an exemption for micro-companies from certain accounting requirements. I took part in unanimous agreement to conclusions to put in place a small business Act for Europe.
The French presidency also tabled a progress report on the European private company statute, an area where discussions will continue under the Czech presidency in 2009. On European clusters, council conclusions were agreed without discussion. The Commission emphasised that the recent communication on clusters should enable member states’ own policies to be more effective.
Under any other business, the Commission stressed that consumers and particularly consumer confidence would be key in the economic recovery and that the new consumer rights directive introduced a simplified framework to unlock retail markets and raise choice at competitive prices. The French presidency called for rapid agreement of the defence procurement directive and signalled its intention to make every effort to reach a deal. I supported a Dutch paper on better regulation covering sectoral targets and an overall net reduction of 25 per cent. There were also brief presentations from Estonia and Portugal on the use of e-signatures to establish companies online, a request from Spain for tourism to be included as a sector in the economic recovery package, a Commission presentation on its raw materials communication, and an update from the French presidency covering negotiations on toys and cosmetics, which have the potential for first reading deals in December 2008 and January 2009 respectively.