The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am pleased to be able to report back on the topics discussed and the views put forward at this Council under the auspices of the Spanish presidency, which took place during the morning (and lunch) on Monday 31 May in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom.
The main (and sole discussion) point on the agenda was the Commission communication on the European digital agenda and Council conclusions on that, along with the presidency paper on a European code of rights. The presidency insisted on a single table round of discussion on all three of these topics. This was initiated by Commissioner Kroes who spoke about the importance of the EU digital agenda to the economic performance of the European Union both in terms of GDP growth and productivity. She recognised that the agenda was ambitious (a multitude of proposals and initiatives) but noted that the EU needed to be bold if we were to match the US and other countries in our leverage of ICT for economic benefit. She was particularly critical on broadband deployment and use across the community and urged member states to set more ambitious targets.
There was then a table round where nearly all member states spoke. There was overwhelming endorsement for the European digital agenda with many Ministers concentrating on the importance of the digital single market (for example, with respect to copyright) but also on broadband deployment and usage. There were, though, differing views on the importance of the code of rights. While the majority of us could see benefit in the codification of existing rights in such an instrument, there was considerable opposition to an extension of rights in such a code (something the Commission were contemplating). No one spoke in opposition to the Council conclusions themselves, which were formally adopted.
In my intervention, I thanked Commissioner Kroes for the ambitious scope of the European digital agenda, agreed with her on the importance of leveraging the economic importance of ICT (especially in the current economic circumstances) and agreed on the need for us all to work together in promoting the deployment and use of broadband on a competitive basis. I also noted the importance to the UK of issues such as digital piracy and updating copyright legislation, where the Commission should set out a clear roadmap. On the code of rights I noted the utility for both business and consumers in having a single point where existing rights were brought together but said the UK were not currently minded in adding new rights to such a code.
The next item, though not formally on the Council agenda, was a discussion over lunch and then a formal meeting between member states on the seat of the BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) secretariat. BEREC was established under the telecoms package agreed in autumn 2009. The meeting formally endorsed the Latvian offer (the only one on the table) to host the secretariat in Riga.
Finally, the presidency introduced a number of items under "Any Other Business". Commissioner Kroes gave an update on the results of the consultation the Commission had initiated on universal service, which they will summarise in a Communication after the autumn. She indicated there were divergent roles on the wisdom of introducing an obligation on the supply of broadband (though it was clear majority of respondents were not in favour). The Commission was also asked to present their "Progress Report on the Single European Electronic Communications Market 2009" and the "Europe's Digital Competitiveness Report". Commissioner Kroes emphasised how the former, while noting the progress being made on broadband deployment in all member states, noted divergence of regulatory approaches (which she did not welcome) and the clear need for a rigorous and correct implementation of the telecoms package. On the latter, she welcomed the clear evidence base of the impact of ICT to the wider economy and noted how here proposals under the EDA included an annual benchmarking exercise of member states. The presidency also briefly informed Ministers of the outcome of the ministerial meeting EU-Latin America and Caribbean Countries: "Digital Content for a Digital Society" in March 2010.
Just before the meeting concluded, Belgium, as the incoming presidency, confirmed their programme for the next six months, which will include discussion on a decision on a new spectrum programme, an agreement on the future mandate for ENISA (the European Information Security Agency), Council conclusions on the EU broadband strategy and on the roaming report and a discussion on e-Government.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): The United Kingdom signed an amending protocol to the joint Council of Europe/OECD Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters on 27 May 2010. The text of the convention and of the protocol is published on the websites of both organisations. A copy of the amending protocol has also been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Draft legislation incorporating the provisions of the protocol into domestic law will be laid before the House of Commons for approval in due course.
The first item on the agenda was a report by the presidency on the progress of negotiations with the European Parliament on the proposal for a regulation on security of gas supply. The presidency noted the likelihood of a first reading deal with the European Parliament by the end of June and there was a short discussion.
The Commission then reported on their dialogue with member states on targets under the Europe 2020 growth strategy, in particular achieving the objective of moving towards an increase of 20% in energy efficiency across the EU. The Commission stressed that, if the EU was to meet the target, then a clear definition of the task and who does what would be necessary. In discussion, a number of member states raised questions about the methodology of calculating targets and the importance of national targets taking account of national circumstances. The Commission will now launch a study on how best to set targets to secure improvements in energy efficiency and will look to member states to provide information on their national energy efficiency targets/programmes in due course. The presidency will report on discussions of the target to the General Affairs Council in preparation for the June European Council.
The main debate at this Council focused on the EU's future energy policy, with most member states intervening. During the discussions, I noted the importance of
implementing existing legislation, creating the markets and networks necessary for a low-carbon future, supporting and developing new technologies, making progress on energy efficiency and diversifying supply routes and sources. In his intervention, Commissioner Oettinger focused on implementation of the internal market package and the questions confronting the development of energy infrastructure in the EU, as well as the need to maintain a focus on research into new energy technologies despite the economic climate. He confirmed that the Commission would publish an "Energy Strategy for Europe 2011-2020" in time for the December Energy Council. The Commission would also produce a roadmap to 2050 and a package of measures to promote infrastructure development. In addition, there would be a focus on energy policy at the European Council early in 2011. Belgium indicated that as the next presidency it would take forward work on the strategy and Ministers agreed high-level Council conclusions setting out high-level principles for the new energy strategy.
Finally, the Commission and presidency gave presentations on a number of international items, on amending the regulation on the European energy programme for recovery to use non-allocated funds, and on the Commission response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.