Shock: British journalist praises Barnier

At last a touch of balance in Britain’s Daily Telegraph over the nomination of Michel Barnier to the internal market portfolio, with responsibility for financial services! I guess it’s no coincidence that the writer, eurosceptic Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, was the newspaper’s correspondent in Brussels from 1999 until 2004 – the same time span as Barnier’s former term as commissioner. No doubt he has personal experience of the Frenchman’s qualities.

I mention this in the context of the furore over recent months concerning EU appointments, linked in the UK with the debate over financial services regulatory reform and the perceived threats to the City of London. Maybe the frenetic atmosphere is beginning to disperse.

It certainly didn’t help when President Sarkozy told Le Monde that the English were “the big losers in this business”, although the wave of aggression whipped up in sections of the British press over Van Rompuy, Ashton and the Commission nominees was quite a provocation, to say nothing of prime minister Brown’s own trumpeting of the Ashton appointment as a national victory in response to Conservative criticism.

It’s just as well that Sarkozy’s plan for a reassuring joint visit to London with Barnier was knocked on the head. It really would have looked like a French conspiracy.

Barnier has been calming things down. His job, he says, is to strengthen Europe’s financial centres, including London. The fears which had been expressed in the City of London were “very exaggerated”.

There has however been a shift in the political mood which is reflected in the composition of the new Commission. The three key economic portfolios – internal market, competition and industry – go to the Club Med with commissioners from France, Spain and Italy. Free markets, raw in tooth and claw, will not be the flavour of the next five years. The drive is clearly for more regulation, especially in financial services, regulation which has to operate at a European level. That’s no surprise, given that the near-collapse of the global banking system did have Anglo-Saxon origins.

An economic double-dip with more lost jobs would put further pressure on EU policy-makers. The challenge for the Barroso II Commission is to maintain progress in the single market, to stimulate business activity, so helping drag Europe out of recession, and to continue the liberalisation of sectors like energy and telecoms. The nominated energy commissioner, Günter Oettinger, may have the most challenging role, given the problems which German firms have with the gas and electricity packages. Neelie Kroes, on the other hand, should be in her element with the “digital agenda”.

As for financial services, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament are of course working on proposals for financial regulation which also date from the outgoing Commission – the legacy of Charlie McCreevy. These include the establishment of the European Systemic Risk Board managed by the ECB and the three European supervisory bodies for banking, insurance and investment services.

There is some progress on these dossiers. It seems that ministers last week agreed that the powers of the three supervisory bodies will be circumscribed, allowing appeal to the Council by a member state which believes its sovereignty is being infringed. MEPs have yet to discuss these proposals.

Meanwhile the treatment of hedge funds and private equity remains a highly contentious issue which may run well into next year – perhaps beyond a British general election, which some rumours suggest could be in March 2010.

Michael Berendt


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