Competitiveness Council: 8th March 2016

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) has today made the following statement.

The Competitiveness Council took place in Brussels on Monday 29 February. I represented the UK for the internal market and industry discussion.

The Council started with the “competitiveness check-up”. The discussion focused on the issue of scale-up within the European Union. Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, responsible for the internal market and industry, gave a presentation which highlighted the importance of young firms for job creation. Member states were asked to comment on the challenges faced by firms trying to scale up and to identify what more could be done at EU and national level to support them.

I led the interventions by member states, highlighting the action taken by the UK Government to support SMEs and scale-ups. I drew attention specifically to: growth hubs, enterprise zones, “Catapult” centres, and the British Business Bank. I also emphasised that the proposed services passport and better enforcement of single market rules are both areas where the EU could add value.

The following item focused on the text of Council conclusions prepared by the Dutch presidency. Commissioner Bienkowska opened the debate by noting the existing barriers to trade despite the economic evidence that suggests a deeper single market, particularly in services, would bring significant benefits. The Commissioner announced that she would propose a services passport by the end of the year. In my intervention I said that the UK supported an ambitious services passport that would tackle disproportionate regulatory barriers. The majority of member states were supportive and wanted to secure ambitious language on the use of mutual recognition. However, some member states remained concerned in the absence of a clear proposal from the Commission. As such, the presidency was required to offer a compromise text, removing reference to mutual recognition and qualifying how regulatory barriers should be tackled as part of the passport. All member states ultimately accepted this and agreed the conclusions but expressed regret that it had not been possible to agree a more ambitious text.​

The next item on the agenda was on the steel industry. This opened with the Commission arguing that both member states and the EU could help create the environment for the steel industry to grow but industry would also need to play its part. The Commission further noted that a record number of trade defence measures had been applied on steel cases and the modernisation of trade defence instruments (MTDI) package would help accelerate future investigations. I, along with other member states, intervened strongly to stress that the reduction of trade defence investigations time scales from nine months to seven would not be enough. I went on to say that while provisional investigation into cold-rolled steel had been welcome, now was the time for urgent EU action. Several member states argued that the stalemate on MTDI needed to be broken and that market economy status (MES) for China needed to be considered carefully.

The presidency concluded that there was agreement in Council that the period for anti-dumping measures should be shortened; access to EU funding should be simplified to facilitate investment in breakthrough technologies; and the burden of regulatory costs, especially for the EU emissions trading scheme, should be significantly reduced for the best performing plants. Presidency conclusions were later distributed.

The European semester and the implementation of country-specific recommendations (CSRs) to tackle barriers to growth were discussed over lunch. Several member states noted that it was important there was a role for the Competitiveness Council and the high-level group on competitiveness and growth. The presidency reported back to Council that it had been a fruitful debate with member states exchanging experiences and agreeing that effective implementation was indeed important for economic growth.

The afternoon session started with a policy debate on the circular economy. The presidency set out the handling arrangements for the cross-cutting circular economy package, which was released in December. It explained that while the legislative aspects would primarily be dealt with in Environment Council the Competitiveness Council had an important role to play in examining the proposals and considering the opportunities and challenges created by the proposed action plan. The Commission noted that both national and local level engagement would be needed. I intervened to support the ambition behind the circular economy action plan and stressed that action should be prioritised to ensure ambitious use of voluntary approaches and measures to improve the coherence between existing EU legislation and initiatives. Several other member states suggested that flexibility was needed to take account of differing member state circumstances: a one-size-fits-all approach would not be appropriate.

A number of items were discussed briefly under “any other business”. In a change to the published agenda the unitary patent and plant breeders’ rights were discussed before the Council considered the update on the portability legislative proposal and the recently announced “Privacy Shield” agreement between the EU and the United States of America.

Commissioner Bienkowska stressed that she was keen to see the unitary patent ratified as soon as possible. And in respect to plant breeders’ rights the Commissioner stressed that the Commission had no intention of reopening the Biotech directive.

There was then an update on the portability of digital content, Commissioner Günther Oettinger, responsible for the digital economy and society, set out that rapid progress had been made on the proposed legislation. I intervened to welcome the Commission’s approach and spoke about the importance of speedy implementation of the portability package, subject to the necessary technical changes.

Commissioner Oettinger informed member states that the draft text of the new EU-US “Privacy Shield” agreement had been published. The new agreement would facilitate the transfer of personal data between the EU and the US following the invalidation of the previous “Safe Harbour” ​agreement. The Privacy Shield would provide updated safeguards, including a more robust framework for citizens to seek redress, and an annual review. The UK did not intervene.