Thursday, November 11, 2010

Barnier's Single Market Act - A Defining Moment for the EU?

Listening to Michel Barnier, the Commissioner for the Internal Market at the European Parliament yesterday, got me thinking. Are we about to witness the start of a new phase in the growth of the single market?

The ambition is big enough. The Commissioner spoke of the proposed Single Market Act as a motor for deeper and closer integration, sweeping away the structural barriers that have frustrated the development of the internal market over the ways. The new Act would re-launch the single market, he said. It would be our best hope for growth – adding 4% to the EU’s GDP annually. It would bring about a realization of a genuine single market in transport and energy, both important growth areas, if they weren’t being hamstrung by national protectionism.

I have no doubt he is right to conclude that market integration will help the economy grow – and help Europe become more competitive globally. But the Vision Thing will require a lot of vested interests being tackled and a lot of sacred cows being slaughtered. For instance, a key component of the Single Market Act is tax co-ordination – sensitive at the best of times. Some Member States, understandably, believe that tax differentials can give them a fair competitive edge against European trading partners – and that it doesn’t stop them from being good members of the internal market.

The Single Market Act could prove to be one of the big landmark events in EU history. But looking at the evidence so far, I’m not so convinced. I’ve seen the Services Directive, which was launched by the Commission to a great fanfare, fizzle and become a shadow of the revolutionary turning point in the single market it was meant to be. Besides the Commission’s workplan for single market measures in 2011 looks particularly lacklustre – a bit more so-called Smart Regulation measures, some new initiatives on debt recovery, a common consolidated corporate tax base, an airports package and maybe something on VAT. Despite the big talk, the Commission is still quite hesitant.
There are nevertheless some big plans for a digital single market which the Belgian minister for Economy and Reform, Mr Vincent van Quickenborne emphasized at the same event in the European Parliament yesterday.

Michel Barnier’s speech on the Single Market Act is not quite up there with Paul Henri Spaak’s address to the European Parliament in June 1961 and the Single Market Act cannot match the defining moments of Jacques Delors’ “Completing the Single Market” White Paper 25 years ago. But perhaps it can be comparable to the 1997 Single Market Action Plan – a programme of objectives to give a boost to a flagging ideal. Of course, it all depends on political will and political leadership. Delors, Mitterand and Kohl – and yes even, Lord Cochfield and Mrs Thatcher, could offer the leadership required in 1985. Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schroeder led the way in 1997; who can give the single market the leadership it needs if it is to go to the next level?

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