European Union (EU) Ministers for Competitiveness met in Brussels on 30 November 2015 for the first part of a Competitiveness Council devoted to issues related to the internal market and industry, the last meeting of its kind under the Luxembourg Presidency.
During the meeting chaired by Etienne Schneider, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Economy, European Ministers covered for the first time the new strategy for the internal market and also looked at the second competitiveness "check-up". The discussions also covered ways to take advantage of the new programme for better regulations to improve the functioning of the internal market, as well as recommendations for the creation of a system of national competitiveness boards in the Eurozone.
After having initiated this practice in their October meeting, the Ministers again looked at the competitiveness "check-up", a new working method set up by the Luxembourg Presidency and announced during the informal meeting of Ministers for Competitiveness in Luxembourg on 20 July 2015.
The Presidency has tried to improve the role of the "Competitiveness" Council both in terms of reviewing horizontal and sectoral economic issues and in terms of monitoring the integration of competitiveness in other EU policies, which aims to ensure that initiatives across different EU policy areas have a positive impact on competitiveness.
This second "check-up" led Ministers to exchange views on the relationship between the internal market integration and the competitiveness of the EU in the global markets, on the basis of a presentation by the Commission. "It is very important to say that the EU is still a very serious competitor world-wide, whose comparitive advantage lies in its capacity to deliver high-quality products across a broad range of sectors and markets", said Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, at a press conference. "Now the situation is changing […] and it is therefore all the more important to stimulate demand in the internal market", she went on to say.
In this context, the Presidency presented a report on the state of play and perspectives of the competitiveness mainstraming in other areas of action, a report which "has been welcomed with great enthusiasm by Member States", highlighted Etienne Schneider.
New strategy for the internal market
During the Council, the Ministers held a first discussion on the new strategy for the internal market, presented by the European Commission on 28 October 2015 and which aims "to reduce in a targeted way the obstacles faced by businesses and consumers in the internal market, like geo-blocking", indicated Etienne Schneider. On the basis of a discussion paper from the Presidency, this first debate concentrated on the aspects aimed at helping businesses, and in particular SMEs and micro-enterprises, to develop their activities.
At a press conference, the Luxembourg Minister recalled that "it is in the internal market that we find great unexploited potential for growth and employment", and that "we must progress as quickly as possible". He noted that the concrete proposals in this context would be submitted "in 2016 and 2017" and that the Council had "given its support" to the Commission. The Commission was called upon by Ministers to submit "ambitious" proposals which "must allow streamlining of markets for the benefit of business, and particularly start-ups".
National competitiveness boards in the Eurozone
The Council went on to exchange views on a Commission recommendation on the creation of national competitiveness boards in the Eurozone. This idea has its origins in the "Five Presidents' Report" on strengthening the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), published in June 2015.
The objective of the recommendation is to put in place national competitiveness boards, ensuring the monitoring of the performance and policies in the field of competitiveness and to help encourage sustained economic convergence and to strengthen the assimilation of reforms needed at national level. According to the proposal, competitiveness boards would be independent from Ministers and public authorities in order to ensure that their consultative role is adequately carried out in the public interest.
In order to structure the debate, the Presidency presented a background paper in which it stated that during the discussions on this topic both in the preparatory committees of the Competitiveness Council and in other Council formations, nearly all delegations welcomed this idea "with scepticism". The Presidency invited Ministers to speak on the need to implement new structures in Member States.
At a press conference, Etienne Schneider highlighted that "the vast majority of Member States" had put forward "their hesitations concerning the need" to create such bodies. "I have noticed doubts regarding the usefulness of and the need to add a supplementary level in the decision process at national level", said the Luxembourg Minister, who also pointed to "fears about the compatibility of such bodies with established mechanisms and traditions at national level, notably in terms of salary and fee negotiations", a topic considered "very sensitive".
Ministers also discussed, based on a background document from the Presidency, ways to take advantage of the new programme for better regulation, presented on 19 May 2015 by the European Commission, to improve the functioning of the internal market and create growth.
The programme for better regulations aims at improving the way in which the EU legislates and at making EU rules more efficient and better adapted to their purpose. One of the main objectives is to make EU policies and legislation achieve their objectives, with reduced financial and administrative costs.
Etienne Schneider said that, in this regard, the discussion had shown that there was a "consensus on the need to make the rules simpler, more transparent and more efficient" and stressed the importance that the policy for "better regulation" should not be considered as "a policy separate and disconnected from the rest, but as tool to be used by other policies".
Emissions tests in the automotive industry
Ministers also looked at the situation of pollutant emissions from vehicles, noted Etienne Schneider, namely the follow-up to the Volkswagen affair (VW) as well as the regulations concerning Real Driving Emissions (RDE) tests, something the Council gave the green light to on 10 November 2015. The car manufacturer confessed at the end of September 2015 to equipping 11 million vehicles with software designed to distort anti-pollution test results in diesel engines.
On this topic, the Luxembourg Minister felt that the decision on the new regulatory framework would "also constitute an important first step in the reduction of pollutant emissions", but above all, that "all this [was] important in order to re-establish confidence amongst consumers, while trying to preserve the image of European industry". He stressed that the Council would remain "closely involved with this case".
Elżbieta Bieńkowska stressed that the vehicles would be submitted to RDE from 1 September 2016, in order to be authorised for the European market, which is a "great success". Welcoming a "very balanced" agreement, she nevertheless stressed that she had to remind Member States that the support of the European Parliament in this regard was still needed.
Assessment of the Luxembourg Presidency
For his last Competitiveness Council as President, Etienne Schneider gave an assessment of the six months of the Luxembourg Presidency.
He specifically congratulated the implementation of the competitiveness "check-up" which "has made our discussions much more lively and interesting", as well as the responsiveness of the Presidency in the face of current events, via the organisation of an extraordinary Council dedicated "to the crisis unfolding in the steel sector" and the inclusion of the VW case in the agenda of two meetings. He also highlighted the speedy response in the face of big political initiatives from the Commission which has allowed "for necessary political feedback to be given in order to start working on clear measures".
Meeting of European Ministers for Space Policy
On the sidelines of the Competitiveness Council, Ministers for space policy for the EU and the European Space Agency met for an EU-ESA (European Space Agency) ministerial meeting.