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Competitiveness Council

Volume 615: debated on Monday 17 October 2016

My noble friend, the Minister of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has made the following written statement:

I represented the UK at the recent meeting of the Competitiveness Council in Brussels on Thursday 29 September.

The Council started with the regular competitiveness check-up. The Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Elzbieta Bienkowska, outlined the challenges faced by start-ups and scale-ups in Europe, particularly in comparison to businesses in the US. In the subsequent exchange of views, the key themes were the need to advertise available sources of funding for start-ups; the lack of access to risk capital; and the importance of providing effective support at regional and national levels. A proposal for a joint meeting of competitiveness and ECOFIN Ministers to discuss this issue was met with broad support. I intervened to express support for the focus on scale-ups and shared an example of UK best practice through the British Business Bank.

The next item was the collaborative (sharing) economy. A Commission presentation was followed by discussion in which several member states stressed the need for collaborative economy businesses to respect existing legislation and tax compliance. I intervened to support the Commission’s vision, as outlined in the recently issued guidance. As part of my intervention I highlighted initiatives by organisations such as Sharing Economy UK (SEUK) to promote responsible growth within the sector.

The next item was a presentation on the standardisation package. The core element of the package is the voluntary joint initiative on standardisation, which brings together all the actors of the standardisation community. A large number of standards-setting bodies and industry representatives signed it in June. The majority of member states signed it in the margins of the Council. I signed on behalf of the UK.

Over lunch, Ministers were joined by Jean-Louis Marchand, President of the European Industry Construction Federation (FIEC) to discuss the construction sector. There was agreement on the importance of the construction industry to the EU economy and the need to increase investment in the sector, including through the use of existing financial instruments. The role of digitisation was recognised, as was the need to remove barriers in the internal market. I highlighted a number of UK initiatives, such as building information modelling (BIM) and smart meters, where digitisation has been used to support innovation in the sector. I also cited the forthcoming services card (formerly known as the services passport) as an important mechanism to support the provision of cross-border services. Commissioner Bienkowska said that the card needed to tackle both regulatory and administrative barriers if it was going to add real value.

The afternoon session started with a discussion on the European steel industry. It focused on EU action since the start of the steel crisis in 2014. Commissioner Bienkowska said that she had been working closely with the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmstr?m to alleviate the impact of the pressures faced by Europe’s steel industry. She said that a level playing field was needed to make the industry fit for globalisation and highlighted the problems caused by global overcapacity and dumping. Many member states called on the Commission to bring forward its proposal on market economy status for China as soon as possible, with reform of the EU emissions trading system, energy costs and the circular economy also recurring themes. I intervened to welcome the establishment of the global forum on steel, as agreed at the G20 in September 2016.

The next item was a discussion on industrial policy in Europe. Several member states called on the Commission to commit to an ambitious and proactive industrial strategy in its forthcoming 2017 work programme. The Commission welcomed the initiative by highlighting all the work that was on-going to support industry. This was followed by an item focused on Europe’s transition to a low-carbon economy, on which no member state intervened.

The Slovak presidency then introduced the item on the unitary patent and the Unified Patent Court (UPC). The Commission noted that only two further ratifications were needed to bring the UPC into effect, and highlighted the urgency with which this was awaited by business. I intervened to commend the work that has gone into the UPC and said that the UK was actively looking into resolving the legal and practical challenges quickly and would provide a further update at the next Competitiveness Council.

The penultimate item was an update on a May conference on the challenge of balancing plant breeders’ rights with patent rights. The Commission noted that any solution should not re-open the biotech directive, but was working on guidance to clarify its effect.

Finally, the Commission presented on the proposed review of the supplementary protection certificate (SPC) regulation, specifically the introduction of the SPC manufacturing waiver. While some member states intervened to highlight the importance of the waiver, others outlined their misgivings, arguing that the right balance already exists between the rights of brand-name and generic pharmaceuticals manufacturers.