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Polish presidency: time to prioritise the Single Market

Submitted by on 01 May 2011 – 12:04

Des Hudson is the Chief Executive of the Law Society of England and Wales.

As Poland assumes the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July it will mark the first stage of the new trio Presidency of Poland, Denmark and Cyprus.  The system of trio Presidencies, which involve three Member States holding the Presidency for 6 months each, aims to improve continuity and as part of this the trio will produce a combined programme setting out their priorities for their time in office.  The need for continuity means Poland will also inherit unfinished matters from the current Hungarian Presidency which it will need to see through to their conclusion.  One of the most important will be the Single Market Act.

The Single Market Act is the European Commission’s attempt to relaunch the EU internal market and it began in December 2010 with a Communication outlining fifty initiatives designed to do just that. At the public hearing following the Communication it became clear that stakeholders had a range of views about which proposals were the most important.  For this reason stakeholders responding to the public consultation on the Communication were asked to identify a “top ten” from this list.

From the legal profession’s perspective this initiative is key. The internal market is the core of what the European Union stands for and business, consumer and citizen alike can all benefit from a re-launch, re-invigoration and re-prioritisation in this field.

We at the Law Society of England and Wales (the Society) have been active on this issue for some time.  We had previously published a strategic paper outlining our EU priorities for the period 2009-2014 and we took the opportunity to make representations direct to Jonathan Faull (Director General, Internal Market and Services, European Commission) at a meeting of the Society’s EU Committee.  Our “top ten topics ” taken from the Commission’s list were:

  1. EU patent;
  2. internal market for services;
  3. electronic commerce;
  4. public procurement;
  5. respect for fundamental social rights;
  6. recognition of professional qualifications;
  7. corporate governance;
  8. alternative dispute resolution and collective redress;
  9. national transposition of EU rules; and
  10. international trade.

The Commission’s response to the public consultation was a further Communication in April 2011 outlining “Twelve levers to boost growth and strengthen confidence”.  These are twelve key priorities in the quest to refresh the single market, and it is understood that legislative proposals will follow later this year.  The Commission is keen to stress that the remaining measures from the original 50 will not be abandoned but regards the twelve factors identified as the first steps.

In some areas the aims of the Commission mirror those of the Society.  For example, the emphasis on legislation to modernise recognition of professional qualifications, legislation on a unitary patent and a unified patent litigation system, legislation on alternative dispute resolution and a “revised and modernised public procurement legislative framework” are to be welcomed.  However, one area that may be of concern is the statement that an “optional European contract law instrument should be introduced to facilitate cross-border transactions in the Single Market” which is made in the context of discussions on simplifying the Accounting Directives.  The Society is not convinced of the need for such an optional instrument at this time and is keen for the EU institutions to explore other ways to address any short-comings in cross-border trade.  Steps that weakened the international use of English contract laws and our legal system for resolving disputes on such contracts will weaken our competitive position in the international legal services market.

The internal market is at the very core of the European Union and attempts to reinvigorate it are to be welcomed.  This will not be a straightforward task and the twelve levers are merely the beginning of a big undertaking.  The Polish Presidency will have an important role to play in the forthcoming legislative proposals but, in doing so, the Presidency has a real chance to make its mark. We as the legal profession in England and Wales look forward to playing our part in this task.