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European Commissioner for Internal Market and
British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Chairman,
Can I begin by thanking you very much for inviting me here to address you this evening on subjects that are very close to the my heart, and very topical just at the moment in Brussels.
It is always a pleasure to meet the British Chamber of Commerce, whether here in these fine surroundings or elsewhere in Europe. A couple of weeks ago in London, I had the pleasure of addressing the Council of British Chambers for Continental Europe. The particular focus of our conversation that day was sovereign wealth funds, and their role – their necessary role in my opinion – in the global Europe that is embracing us more and more every day.
I'm going to speak about other, although not entirely unrelated subjects to you here tonight. Completing the Single Market for the citizens is at the very core of the Review we presented in November, and I'm particularly glad therefore to have the chance to share my views on this with you. But also to hear your ideas in a few minutes on how you think the job should be taken forward.
Likewise, I very much share the view, implied in the title of my remarks to you tonight, that our success – or otherwise - in the Single Market is part and parcel of our broader success in achieving the Lisbon Agenda.
Before talking about all that, I'd like to congratulate you on the fine work you do here in the British Chamber. I'm told you have two or more events every week for your members, and I think your Council and Secretariat deserves great credit for this and for all the other activities you are involved in.
Shortly after I took up my role in Brussels, I remember my deputy head of cabinet came to speak to you about better regulation, which as you may know is a subject very dear to me, and on which the Commission is due to adopt a Communication tomorrow. And I'm very glad you've kept up your work in this field, because the robust position papers that you produce are helping us in the Commission in trying to get it right when it comes to regulation.
But coming back to the main issue of this speech, the Single Market and its broader context the Lisbon Strategy, let me start by saying a few words on the Lisbon Strategy.
First of all, the good news is, it's now delivering. After its initial difficult start in 2000, when "Lisbon" was seen as the equivalent of "no progress", the revised strategy in 2005 is indeed helping to create growth and jobs.
To give you some figures: structural reforms have helped increase the potential estimated growth rate of GDP in the euro zone by 0.2 percentage points since 2005 to some 2.25% in 2007. Almost 6.5 million new jobs have been created in the last two years. According to current estimates another 5 million jobs are expected to be created over the coming years. Unemployment is expected to fall to under 7%, the lowest since the mid 1980s. For the first time in a decade, strong increases in employment have gone hand in hand with robust productivity growth. What all this means is that it is helping position Europe and European citizens to succeed in the age of globalisation.
The added value of the current Lisbon process is that it is now properly focused on the key issues necessary for growth and jobs. Secondly, it brings together reforms necessary at national level and at community level. Third it brings together all the necessary reforms in the different fields of macro and micro economic policies and employment policies. Last but not least it is not a once-off process. Progress at national level and at community level is reviewed every year.
On this basis, recommendations are given on what needs to be done in the year ahead. This has introduced more transparency and peer pressure, which has started to bear fruit.
Now to come to the Single Market. A well functioning single market is recognised as a crucial element for Europe's competitiveness. It comes therefore as no surprise that improving the functioning of a single market and increasing competition is a key element of the Lisbon strategy.
Not long ago, Jörgen Holmquist, the director general for the Internal Market and Services DG, was with you to talk of the new challenges facing the Single Market. Since you met him, we've of course presented the Single Market Review, and so things have moved on somewhat. So it's useful for us now to have a look at where things are at, and indeed, subject to the forthcoming Spring European Council, where they will go from here.
You know, in considering what the Single Market has already achieved, it's worth pausing for a moment to look at the numbers. Maybe it's because I'm a chartered accountant, but this is the way I like to do things.
Here are some of the numbers for the UK:
Each and every one of you here tonight contributes to these numbers. I think it's something you can be proud of, and that the UK economy generally can be proud of.
My friend and former Ecofin Council colleague Gordon Brown stated recently that this trading relationship is only going to keep on growing. This means, in both relative and absolute terms, that the EU and the Single Market will remain more important for British growth and jobs than any of the UK's other trading relationships.
What is the added value of the Single Market Review?
So what is new following the Single Market Review and in particular, what does it offer to citizens? It very clearly puts enterprises and consumers at the centre of Single Market policy and puts a new emphasis on opportunities they can reap from a unified market. Most importantly of all, it sends a positive and necessary message to citizens.
My colleagues and myself in the Commission strongly believe that the Single Market brings benefits and works in favour of all EU citizens: whether they be private citizens and consumers, or corporate citizens. However not everybody in Europe shares this view. In the public consultations and surveys that we carried out in 2006, most people expressed support for the Single Market's achievements, but other argued that the Single Market only works for "big business". And they said that benefits are not always tangible for consumers and small companies. In short, they recommended that both of these groups of stakeholders should be more involved. We listened to this message, and decided that the Single Market Review should be primarily targeted at citizens and SMEs, so that they no longer feel left out of the Single Market story.
How exactly will we place citizens and SMEs at the core of the Single Market policy? First of all, by basing our policy decisions on economic analysis of how markets work in practice to make sure we act where real problems exist and where most benefits can be drawn for citizens. Secondly, we will use legislation only when it is justified. Otherwise, we will look for other – non-legislative – means – for instance, we will assist industry in drawing up codes of conduct or issue guidance and information. This way, extra burdens on small firms can be avoided.
But let me give you examples of concrete initiatives which we have in the pipeline, which will bring tangible benefits for citizens. The retail financial services is the first policy area that comes to mind given how essential bank accounts, credit and debit cards or mortgages are to citizens' economic wellbeing. We have put forward an ambitious package of initiatives to increase the competitiveness of those services and to improve citizens' access to them. I want to allow citizens to make an informed choice between different available financial products and to be free to switch service providers as they choose. For that reason, I have asked the banking industry to come up with a "code of conduct" regarding switching of accounts between banks and opening new accounts abroad. My services will also carry out research to assess the possibility of improving transparency and comparability of certain products such as motor insurance. You might also have come across the initiatives on mortgage credit and financial education that we published in December.
Another very practical improvement - in particular for SMEs - will be introduced by the European Private Company Statute and the Small Business Act. Both initiatives are expected by the middle of this year and should encourage SMEs to engage to a larger extent in cross-border business activities. Enterprises that could not benefit from the European (Public) Company Statute will now have a tailor-made uniform legal form and will be able to carry out their business according to one set of corporate rules across the EU. As to the Small Business Act, it will bring together various SME-targeted measures, such as work on administrative burdens or SME participation in funding programmes.
I also want to step up the fight against all forms of counterfeiting because of the harm it does to European competitiveness and innovation, and the risks it creates for the health and safety of European citizens. We have enough laws on the statute book to combat counterfeiting. The challenge now is to apply these laws in a coherent, balanced and intelligent way. Together with Members of the European Parliament I intend to organize in Spring a high level seminar in order to start a process of stakeholder dialogues aimed at finding practical approaches to making existing legislation work better.
The benefits from the new measures I've just mentioned, and the benefits from the opportunities brought by the Single Market as a whole, will only however trickle down to citizens if they know their Single Market rights. Unfortunately we cannot take this for granted. According to the 2006 public surveys, 7 out of 10 EU citizens had not heard of information and problem-solving networks, such as SOLVIT, that the Commission has put in place. That is why we want to make all information sources as accessible and citizen-friendly as possible.
We are currently working on creating a "single gateway" concept, which will provide just one access point to information, assistance and problem-solving services at EU level. A citizen will then be able to find answers to most of his or her EU-related questions on one portal. Be they about lack of authorisation for carrying out business activity in another Member State, or about EU legislation and initiatives for businesses.
Can I conclude with a general point touching on Britain's relationship with this project that we call the European Union. I was telling you earlier about Prime Minister Brown's recent remarks on the Single Market. Here's another thing he said on that occasion:
"Rather than retreating to the sidelines, [Britain] must remain fully engaged in Europe so [that it] can push forward the reforms that are essential for Europe's, and Britain's, economic future".
I couldn't agree more with him. I would go even further: Britain should assume the leadership role which corresponds to its weight, experience and tradition when it comes to reforms and modernisation to make Europe fit for the global age. Britain needs Europe, just as Europe needs Britain. In my view, Ladies and Gentlemen, it's as simple as that.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to answering your questions.
 Quoted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown MP, on 14 January 2008, in a speech to Business for a New Europe.