The chairperson Malcolm Harbour (ECR, UK) introduced the speaker, who he recalled was a member of the Parliament himself before working in the Greek government and, subsequently, chairing the European Competitiveness Council. He then welcomed Mr Hatzidakis, and turned the floor over to him.
Kostis Hatzidakis, Greek Minister of Development, Competitiveness, Infrastructure, Transport and Networks, also recalled his tenure in the European Parliament, adding that he was looking forward to working with many of his former colleagues as a member of the Council Presidency. He commented the presidency would be peculiar in many ways, not least because of its condensed timeline due to the spring parliamentary elections. This means much of the work will need to be frontloaded and addressed rapidly, he said, adding that a failure to close many of the legislative dossiers in question would be a failure to take advantage of an opportunity to show European citizens the value of EU institutions. He also commented that a successful Presidency would be an opportunity to showcase Greece’s recovery and restore confidence in Europe. Given the need for success, he continued, the Greek Presidency will pursue a pragmatic agenda, one that will encourage compromise. He stated he intends to work closely with the Parliament for this reason, adding that he felt confident notable progress would be made with this approach.
He then turned to the activities of the Competitiveness Council, the objectives of which he said would revolve around the following principles:
- A recognition that competitiveness would be keep to overcoming Europe’s economic and financial crisis, but that consumers must be protected as competitiveness is enhanced
- Support for SMEs, and
- Reinforcing the legal framework for consumer protection.
And the following legislative priorities:
- Technical harmonisation issues
- The travel package, to which he said the Greek President attached particular importance given the contribution of tourism to the Greek economy
- The product safety and market surveillance package, which he commented had not made much progress due to the division in COREPER on the “made in” provision in Article 7. He warned that the Member States must be allowed to find a common position on their own, but conceded that he expected no “miracles”
- The proposed directive for e-invoicing in public procurement, which he said he was optimistic could be adopted after first reading since only the matter of deadlines remained on the table.
He then briefly updated the committee on the status of a number of items, commenting that:
- He was very satisfied about the provisional agreement on the radio equipment directive, which he recalled was the first file finished under the new Competitiveness Council
- A compromise proposal on pressure equipment was being discussed that very day
- He hoped to have the motor vehicles transfer package concluded before the end of the legislative session, and
- He was unsure about exactly how ambitious the Greek Presidency could be on the proposed directive on eCalls, though he said it would certainly not be ignored.
The chairperson commented that the Presidency was off to a great start, adding that he hoped the e-invoicing proposal would be concluded soon.
Andreas Schwab (EPP, DE) welcomed the Minister, commenting he was happy to be working with him. He then turned to legislation, commenting that the Parliament would like to see some flexibility in the e-invoicing deadlines to reciprocate the flexibility shown by the IMCO committee. He also wished to inform the Minister that the IMCO committee would be voting on the net neutrality and security package, for which he reported good compromises had been achieved, the following day. Concluding, he urged the Minister to make every effort to conclude the product safety package before the end of the legislative session.
Mr Hatzidakis responded that he understood the desire in the Parliament to see quick implementation for e-invoicing, but contended that flexibility was needed from both the Member States and Parliament. He then wished to remind Mr Schwab that he was not the minister in charge of net neutrality and security, but assured him that the Transport and Telecommunications Minister would be informed.
Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, DE) also stated she was happy to be working with someone who would take the Parliament seriously. She hoped that support for SMEs, which she called the engines of European growth, would also be taken seriously. With regard to the market surveillance and product safety package, she stated the Minister would have her full support as he dealt with the rest of the Council. Before moving on, she wished to point out that the Lisbon Treaty had removed the necessity for unanimity on all things in the Council, but that the Council continued to adhere to this principle. She asked the Minister if he could not therefore move things along in the Council.
Mr Hatzidakis agreed that SMEs needed to be a priority for the Greek Presidency. He conceded that perhaps not everything could be changed in three months, but he assured the committee the Greek Presidency would begin to address the barriers to financing facing many small companies. He informed the committee that some of the Member States had not been very supportive of the European Investment Bank suggestions of late, but that the Presidency would be working on this, especially as it fit in with efforts to stimulate SME manufacturing. On the product safety file, he first acknowledged that the Parliament had already reached an agreement. He informed the committee that the Presidency had earlier in the day submitted its fourth proposal, but that it had unfortunately been unsuccessful. The Greek Presidency is open to any ideas the Parliament may have, he said, including procedural suggestions. He informed the committee he would again be in Brussels the following week to discuss any proposals, but that the Greek ambassador had also been given a mandate to fully cooperate with the Parliament.
The chairperson commented that he and his colleagues would be happy to discuss the matter later in the evening.
Toine Manders (ALDE, NL) wished first to emphasise the importance of the re-registration of cars file, about which he said he was optimistic but worried about the tight timetable. He then asked the Minister to remind the Council their inaction would be punishing the members of Parliament in upcoming elections. He argued that European leaders needed to renew citizens’ trust in Europe, and urged the Minister to start that discussion through the Council Presidency. Concluding, he briefly added that he would like to see a Commissioner for Aging replace a Commissioner for multilingualism in the next Commission.
Mr Hatzidakis agreed that euroscepticism was a real problem. What is needed, he argued, is more Europe, and a more efficient Europe - that is to say, he continued, a more liberal approach. Eurosceptics belong in the past, he said, but to do that Europe needs a new dream. This is one of the most basic lessons Europe learned in the crisis, he concluded.
Heide Rühle (Greens/EFA, DE) commended the early progress made by the Greek Presidency. She was especially complimentary of the progress made on the transfer of motor vehicles file, which she called a good example of action taken for consumers, not politicians. She said she also commended the work done on the e-invoicing file, adding that she hoped to see it closed soon. The market surveillance package, however, she called a “poisoned chalice”, since the Parliament knew before that the designation of origin issue would split the Council. Mr Hatzidakis briefly responded, simply thanking Ms Rühle for her support.
Christel Schaldemose (S&D, DK) acknowledged it would be difficult to address the Parliament only to say that he still had no negotiating mandate on the product safety package, and assured the Minister that the blame was not being placed on the Greek Presidency. She stated that she, herself, could not understand the Council’s reluctance, especially considering the Parliament had indicated it was willing to negotiate. She felt it was unlikely that the file would be adopted at first reading now, adding that it would nevertheless be taken to plenary. Europe, she continued, needs better market surveillance. She suggested that perhaps Europe could copy the “made in” regulation from the US. She then asked the Minister to convey the Parliament’s urgency to the Council.
Konstantinos Poupakis (EPP, EL) reported that the latest employment report showed that while prices had fallen in the Eurozone, they had not fallen as fast as wages, especially in Greece. While the fall in wages made the exports of some Member States more competitive, he argued that this does not help people. He therefore wished to know which measures, specifically, the Greek Presidency had planned to propose to improve the purchasing power of citizens.
Mr Hatzidakis first addressed Ms Schaldemose, saying that the Presidency felt it must continue to engage the different Member States in dialogue, if not forever, then at least for a while longer. He conceded that to lose all progress made on the file because of Article 7 would be a shame. To Mr Poupakis he confirmed that wages had fallen faster than prices. He contended, however, that the Greek government had taken concrete steps to alleviate these pressures and address market inflexibilities. He explained that the government was looking into reforming benefits for some social groups that may be overprotected at the expense of consumers. He offered as an example the government’s decision to liberalise the sale of baby formula, the price of which he pointed out fell 20 per cent after sales were no longer restricted to pharmacies.
Sergio Gaetano Cofferati (S&D, IT) suggested that the shortened mandate of the Greek Presidency would give it the opportunity to focus on issues affecting citizens’ impressions of the EU. Greater product safety would be an important victory for a short presidency, he continued. The Greek Presidency is justified in focusing on only a few things.
António Fernando Correia de Campos (S&D, PT) wished first to offer an assurance of solidarity between Portugal in Greece since both faced similar problems. He recalled that the Greek Presidency had made the travel package and market surveillance file priorities, but wished to bring the latest IMF report, which suggested “targeted landing” as a possible solution to the crisis, to the Minister’s attention.
Mr Hatzidakis agreed that only eurosceptics win if the market surveillance package was not completed, adding that for this reason the Greek Presidency would not be giving up on it. Protecting consumers is a major priority, he said.
Olga Sehnalová (S&D, CZ) wished to thank the Greek Presidency for finalising the eCall legislation, which she commented had been the result of 10 years of work.
Pablo Arias Echeverría (EPP, ES) agreed that euroscepticism was a growing problem, and thanked the Minister for his support. He wished to emphasise the importance of the Article 7 “made in” provision in the product safety proposal, arguing it would be essential for both SMEs and, especially, consumers, who would be able to better evaluate product information. He also pressed upon the Minister his desire to see concerted efforts to address youth employment problems and to expand Europe’s digital market.
Marc Tarabella (S&D, BE) commented that a review of Europe’s energy services sector was needed, especially with respect to jobs growth there. He also wished to remind the Minister that it was the rural areas that often suffered the most due to liberalisation policies.
Bernadette Vergnaud (S&D, FR) suggested that the shortened presidency may be an opportunity, as mentioned previously. She highlighted the increased budget for research as a recent success, and asked if the Presidency had any plans to facilitate cross-sector and cross-border research initiatives to complement these budgets.
The chairperson, responding to Ms Vergnaud, wished to mention that he had been quite impressed by the innovation centre in Athens. He then turned to the Minister, asking whether the government had made any progress on its 12-point reform plan.
Mr Hatzidakis agreed that the eCall directive had been an important step in the right direction, making roads safer for both operators and consumers. To Mr Echeverrías he reported that Greece had made some progress, but that strength of confidence and of the banking sector continued to be lacking in the country. He stated the Greek government continued to be dedicated to fiscal reform, but that Greece needed a more explicit show of solidarity from the Member States and the EU. By restoring confidence, this will matter, he argued. He said instruments like the Youth Guarantee will be important, but not sufficient. Populists, he said, always have easy solutions, but these are real problems.
To Mr Tarabella wished to clarify that liberalisation as not the objective, only the means to the growth and development of a single market. As such, Member States will continue to make their own decisions on how best to complete the single market and alleviate Europe’s lingering social and economic problems. To Ms Vergnaud he explained he had spoken with the ITRE committee, and that the discussion had emphasised innovation and skills.
He pointed out that supporting SMEs has the added benefit of acting as a social policy as well as an economic one. He said it was a serious mistake for Europe to ignore industry, especially small manufacturing, over the past few decades. Europe, he argued, must invest in industry by making a commitment to reducing bureaucracy and relying on ever smarter regulation. The Greek Presidency won’t fix everything in three months, he said, but it will begin to work on it.