Mr President, these days competition is often regarded as a concept that makes life difficult. Some people prefer cosy arrangements and the hot tub of backstage agreements as protection against the harsh world of global competition. But, Commissioner, competition is not the spoiler but the lifesaver of the European economy. Europe is at a crossroads. Will it create a transfer economy, with low growth and high structural unemployment, or will it have a wealth-creating economy that stands the test of global competition?
A football team, Commissioner, that is not competitive loses game after game. An economy that is not competitive loses investment, jobs and finally the basis of its social arrangements. Since European competition policy is the exclusive competence of the European Commission, you, Commissioner – or rather Commissioner Almunia, for whom you are standing in – play a decisive role.
This week the United Nations published figures on foreign direct investment in 2010. The United States attracted 43% more foreign investment than in 2009. Foreign direct investment in Latin America rose by 21% and in Asia by 10%. In the European Union it dropped by 20% – and why is that? The money goes to where the action is. Apparently investors regard Europe as the continent of inaction, only generating poor growth figures. It demonstrates the European Union facing a competitiveness deficit.
Commissioner, you have to assure a level playing field for entrepreneurial activity in Europe to make our continent fit for global competition. We all know China.
I would like to draw your attention to several aspects of competition policy in 2009, of which many features are visible today. The main issue now is the consequences of massive state aid to the financial sector: states allocated taxpayers’ money to prevent the collapse of the financial sector. Had we allowed a meltdown of the financial sector, the savings and pensions of millions of European citizens would have been buried too. But it goes without saying that state aid on this scale created distortions of competition. That is why it has to end as soon as possible and the money has to be paid back to taxpayers in Europe.
Commissioner, my first question therefore is: how temporary is the temporary framework, and how will it be phased out? I hope you will clarify this issue on behalf of Commissioner Almunia.
Another aspect is liquidity support of the European Central Bank to certain banks in order to keep them alive. I admit there is an interface between monetary and competition policy – but did its impact distort competition? That is my question.
Another issue is the set of rules for divestment. Work criteria for downsizing companies are sufficiently clear and fair. Now we should look at the future: what is going to happen, Commissioner? Member States have gone very far to recapitalise the financial sector by partly and/or entirely nationalising institutions with taxpayers’ money. This will have to be unravelled. But once Member States start withdrawing from financial institutions to restore their private status, there is a danger that they will leave behind a dowry, a sort of wedding gift. Dowries may be used to prop up the position of financial institutions in the private market.
This is a feature we have often seen in the process of privatisation. I remember it too well in the postal sector. Governments propped up their postal provider just before entering the private market. In a letter I reminded Commissioner Almunia of the long-lasting investigation into the German postal provider. The Commission is currently opening investigations into the British, French and Belgian postal providers as well, since these postal markets will be liberalised this year.
So, Commissioner, I ask you to be attentive to the phenomenon of dowry in the financial sector. Preventing a problem is better than going the long way of legal redress.
I thank you, Commissioner – and also Commissioner Almunia – for your cooperation, and I also thank the service of DG Competition which, as I know, is one of the best in the Commission.
Brussels, 20 January 2011