6th Dec 2022

Barroso shows social side in EU market vision

The European Commission on Wednesday appeared to be trying to shrug off its reputation as a free-market bulwark, releasing a vision on the future of the EU's single market which is notably sensitive to social concerns.

The commission's "vision for the single market of the 21st century," to be presented to EU leaders meeting in March, provides the first philosophical basis for a more detailed review of the EU internal market planned for the autumn this year.

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The current team of commissioners led by Jose Manuel Barroso generally has a pro-market reputation, not least in Germany and France which have frequently clashed with Brussels over issues like energy liberalisation and the freeing up of Europe's services market.

But the commission in Wednesday's paper appeared to be subtly shifting its focus to the social side, amid reports that Mr Barroso is already fighting to secure Franco-German support for a second term in office after 2009.

The paper only indirectly mentions some sensitive areas where the EU market integration is incomplete – such as health, financial services and "network industries" like energy.

The document's priority however lies with the single market's impact on citizens and consumers and – only in third place – businesses.

"Whereas traditionally, single market policy was aimed at removing cross border barriers, mainly through regulatory means, the emphasis for the future will be on ensuring a better functioning of markets for the benefits of citizens, consumers and entrepreneurs," according to the paper.

This should be done "with a view to promoting a competitive business environment, which respects consumer choice and is socially and environmentally responsible."

The paper also states that "many European citizens have raised concerns about the perceived disruptive impacts of globalisation," adding that it is a "matter of social justice" to "anticipate and accompany change for the people and sectors directly affected by the market opening."

Brussels already runs the so-called Globalisation Adjustment Fund which was introduced by Mr Barroso in 2005 after French president Jacques Chirac criticised the EU for failing to respond to massive lay-offs in France by US computer maker Hewlett-Packard.

Further, Brussels' new single market paper proposes "improved assessment of the social impact of further integration and of the opening of sectors to competition" in what reads as self-criticism on the commission's generally enthousiastic belief in free competition.

John Monks, the secretary-general of European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) said in an initial reaction "this shows a sign of welcome awareness on the way the single market can operate to people."

"It seems to depart from the religious zeal we've seen, the theological commitment to the single market without consideration for its social downsides."

Businesseurope, the EU's employers organisation, said in a statement that it "strongly supports" Wednesday's paper – mainly because of the shift it proposes from new EU legislation to consideration for the actual functioning of markets.

But Businesseurope's internal market specialist Carlos Almaraz also said that "we definitely think that the emphasis on the removal of existing barriers in the single market is not sufficiently underscored in the paper," referring to the energy and services sectors in particular.

He said the completion of the internal market "should not be forgotten as a primary objective."

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