Reforming the single market and fostering EU competitiveness: can the EU regain its edge? (April 9)

Speakers: Slotboom Outi, Pelkmans Jacques, Niederländer Frank, De Vijlder William, Lenchant Lucas
Moderator: Tamma Paola

On the 9th of April 2024, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised an afternoon debate on the question of the future of the Single Market and how the European Union can regain its competitive edge with Outi Slotboom, Director, Strategy and Economic Analysis, DG GROW, European Commission; Jacques Pelkmans, Associate Senior Fellow, CEPS and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe; William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist, BNP Paribas and Frank Niederländer, Head of Governmental Affairs Europe, BMW, who joined the discussion online.

Lucas Lenchant, Senior Advisor to the Permanent Representative to the EU institutions, European Investment Bank (EIB) held a keynote speech.

The debate was moderated by Paola Tamma, Brussels Correspondent, Financial Times.

Paola Tamma opened the event by introducing herself, welcoming the audience and introducing the topics of discussion. She started by emphasising that the Single Market is often championed as one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, notably in virtue of lower prices and an aggregate GDP which is calculated, on average, as 9% higher than it would be without Europe being integrated. Whereas, due to the varying levels of integration across different countries and sectors, she also highlighted that there is a widespread recognition that much still needs to be accomplished. In this respect, Paola Tamma mentioned that, although several observers have suggested that achieving further integration could deliver significant gains, progress has stalled over time. She also pointed out that the next legislative term would have the opportunity to address these questions, also thanks to the two publications on the future of the Single Market and on the question of EU competitiveness, respectively commissioned to former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and former ECB President Mario Draghi.

After providing the audience with this overview, the moderator introduced the panellists and invited Lucas Lenchant to hold a keynote speech.

Lucas Lenchant began his keynote speech by pointing out that the question of competitiveness would surely rank high on the next European Commission’s agenda and by saying that he was looking forward to the publication of the Letta and Draghi reports. Mr Lenchant then clarified that the notion of competitiveness has a very clear echo in the Capital Markets Union (CMU) project. He also expressed regret for the fact that a full capital markets integration is not in place yet, while adding that fragmented European financial markets are hampering the EU’s competitive edge. In contrast to this, he emphasised how a fully-fledged Capital Market Union could play an enabling role for the EU in terms of job creation, innovation and economic growth.

Mr Lenchant argued that, for the capital markets to make a difference, they need to be put to work in order to fill the investment gaps that the EU economy is currently facing. He then added that the CMU seems to be on the radar of EU leaders. In this regard, he recalled that, at the Eurozone Summit on the 22nd of March 2024, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz highlighted the importance of better-performing capital markets in Europe. Moreover, he added that the same question will also feature in the agenda of the European Council on the 17th and 18th of April 2024. Against this backdrop and given the EU’s ability to close ranks in times of crisis, the speaker expressed his optimism towards a successful finalisation of the Capital Market Union.

Lucas Lenchant subsequently highlighted the issue of investment gaps for innovation, which the speaker pointed out as a key driver of competitiveness. This emerged amongst the findings of the latest EIB Investment Survey, according to which Europe stood out as a global research and innovation powerhouse and a leading economy in terms of investment in research and development (R&D) and number of researchers. However, Mr Lenchant mentioned that, despite increasing its level of R&D investment over the last two decades, the EU was still far from meeting its target of allocating 3% of its GDP. On the same note, he explained how Europe is underperforming compared to the United States by losing ground in key technologies and generating a smaller number of innovative entrepreneurs. Mr Lenchant then elaborated on the question of digital patents and noted that both the US and China are depositing, on average, more than twice the number of patents compared to Europe. The same applies to the remit of AI, the speaker added, as China and the US are respectively securing, on average, more than double and more than triple the number of EU patents.

Lucas Lenchant subsequently remarked on the fact that highly innovative firms in the EU suffer from a lack of subtle finance, thus impairing their ability to grow. He also highlighted that the associated financing gap of high-growth companies is due to an underdeveloped venture capital market, which lacks appropriate instruments, scale, risk appetite, as well as skills. He also explained that regulation could be improved, notably when it comes to a unified Initial Public Offering (IPO) market or the harmonisation of insolvency regimes across the EU. Additionally, Mr Lenchant mentioned how research and development spending is highly concentrated in some EU Member States, resulting in a scientific and technological geographical divide.

In terms of global competition, the speaker advocated for better translation of fundamental research into tangible, commercial and innovative products and services, as this process would provide the Single Market with a global competitive edge. Moreover, he referred to the latest report of the International Federation of Robotics, according to which, as of 2022, 52% of all industrial robots in the world were installed in China (compared to 14% a decade earlier), and added that the EU is unfortunately far from this performance. To bolster innovation, Mr Lenchant expressed the need for adequate and innovative financing. He also mentioned that the EIB Group has, since 2000, invested about €270 billion in innovation in all segments of the value chain through the European Investment Fund, being one of the largest providers of venture capital in the EU.

Lucas Lenchant subsequently advocated for taking more risk when investing in innovation, most notably when risk is shared, and stated that this is a fundamental element of the EIB’s engagement in EU programmes such as InvestEU Fund or Horizon Europe. He specified that the allocation of part of the EU budget to these programmes acts as a guarantee for actors such as the EIB to take more risk and fund projects which would otherwise not be financed to the same extent or at all. For Mr Lenchant, more private capital must flow to research and innovation, especially in times of constrained budgetary resources, as traditional commercial banks are able to complete the task. He also added that contributing to the completion of the CMU ranked among the eight priorities of the newly appointed EIB president Nadia Calviño.

According to the speaker, the current fragmentation of the CMU also implies that financing is inadequate to support the scaling-up of top-notch companies. To reverse this trend, the EIB, with some EU member states,  has put forward some actions such as the European Tech Champions Initiative, which should generate much-needed late-stage capital growth for promising European innovators. However, he stressed that more financing is yet required to help successful start-ups scale up in the Single Market, especially in the green and clean technology sectors, which would not meet the carbon neutrality goal by 2050 with current technologies.

The speaker also emphasised that the discussion on how to tackle climate change and its conjugation with innovation could not be seen independently from the geopolitical tensions pressuring the single market. According to Mr Lenchant, the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the US and China’s economic policies confirmed the need for the EU to drastically reduce its dependencies on foreign energy sources and raw materials, whilst bolstering its supply chain. Mr Lenchant reminded the audience that the EU’s strategic autonomy and resilience are indeed at stake. More specifically, he considered several pieces of EU legislation such as the Net Zero Industry Act, the Chips Act and the Critical Raw Materials Act as steps in the right direction, while confirming the EIB’s eagerness to contribute to them with its financial instruments such as the REPowerEU+ initiative.

Mr Lenchant also emphasised the link between innovation and skills, arguing that both education and vocational education need to rank higher in the policy priority list. In addition, he reiterated the importance for the EU to invest more in innovation to cope with climate change and remain competitive on the world stage. Mr Lenchant also anticipated that, within the context of the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the successor of Horizon Europe would likely be more focused on the transition of fundamental resources into applied innovation. Simultaneously, he warned that it remains to be seen whether and how EU policymakers would be able to make the best out of the CMU. Mr Lenchant concluded his speech by mentioning the opportunity for the CMU to rank high in the Strategic Agenda of the European Council and the Political Guidelines of the new European Commission. He also reiterated the EIB’s readiness to contribute to enabling the CMU to unleash the potential of the Single Market.

Paola Tamma then opened the panel discussion by asking Outi Slotboom which are the main low-hanging fruits that policy-makers could try to pick in order to deliver progress on the Single Market.

Outi Slotboom started by agreeing with the moderator that in some areas progress has stalled for the last 10 years. She then stated that most of the low-hanging fruits have already been harvested while emphasising that there could be more available e.g. in the domain of digitalisation. In this regard, she recalled how, over the last ten years, the EU improved its management of the Single Market, the collection of information, the exchange and transfer of data, as well as the monitoring and trade through new digital tools, such as the Single Digital Gateway. Ms Slotboom also mentioned that the EU is opening a new page in terms of EU enlargement both for Ukraine and the Western Balkans and added that these dynamics also constitute a step forward, as they will foster the Single Market strength in terms of both supply chain resilience and scope of the market.

Taking the example of the pushback generated from the reduction of Ukraine’s trade barriers, Paola Tamma asked Ms Slotboom a follow-up question on the challenges of the enlargement process, as new competitors would enter the Single Market.

Ms Slotboom reassured that the EU cohesion policies that accompany market opening are the main instrument to mitigate the possible negative effects of enlargements, as had happened for the previous ones. She also acknowledged that some conflicts have emerged with the process of market opening, however, she also stated that these should be considered individual cases. On the contrary, she highlighted how the EU enlargement rounds not only have helped the expansion of the Single Market but also brought the EU more negotiation power while trading with third countries. Ms Slotboom added that with a new wave of enlargement, the EU supply chains would be more integrated, making the Single Market more functional and powerful. She also added that the European Commission would soon publish a report celebrating the 20 years from the 2004 enlargement round, showing the positive impact of the trading costs reduction and the integration of supply chains. Ms Slotboom concluded by saying that she was confident that this would also be the case in the next enlargement wave, as well.

Ms Tamma then asked Jacques Pelkmans which reforms of the Single Market should be prioritised and whether he saw the current momentum as a window of opportunity.

Jacques Pelkmans answered by referring to the report he authored for CEPS earlier this year to point out that there were more issues to consider compared to what has been mentioned, so far. He also argued that the emphasis on innovation and technology, in his opinion, has pushed into oblivion the longstanding criticalities of the Single Market that have not been resolved so far. He also expressed his scepticism that these questions will have a sound resonance with EU leaders. At the same time, he acknowledged that the European Commission report on the 30 years of the Single Market shows that enormous progress has been made in terms  of the most recent economic analysis.

Professor Pelkmans then referred to German Chancellor Scholz’s statement about the importance of the CMU previously mentioned to question why the biggest IPO in Europe in the last years (€75 billion) had not been launched at EU level. He also pointed out the large amount of violations of Single Market rules, which are still occurring notwithstanding the efforts to reduce them. In conclusion, Professor Pelkmans stressed the need for EU institutions in general and for the European Council in particular to make a stronger commitment to prioritise the EU Single Market reform along with the other institutions.

The moderator turned to William de Vijlder to ask his opinion about the EU being less competitive than the US or other global actors in terms of capital availability.

William de Vijlder first made a plea in relation to the previously discussed question of the low-hanging fruits to be picked to deliver progress on the Single Market by stating that a report on the cost of not having a CMU should be published on an annual basis. Indeed, he expressed his opinion about what the lack of awareness entails in terms of operational complexity and getting projects financed. According to Mr de Vijlder, we should constantly apply a counterfactual macroeconomic analysis to demonstrate the importance of the establishment of a fully-fledged EU capital market, which he specified is the same type which is applied when the ECB decides on interest rate shifts. He also reminded the diversification benefits for investors which can be added to an actual Capital Market Union.

The panellist also referred to a speech given by ECB President Christine Lagarde at the November 2023 European Banking Congress in Frankfurt, when she explained the role played by the opening-up of capital throughout the US in investment financing needs for railway development. On that occasion, Christina Lagarde argued that Europe was facing something similar because of the huge financing needs faced by the EU budget, which is often forecasted at around €500 billions of extra investment per year for the coming 10 years. To put this setting in perspective, the speaker highlighted that, if these needs were met, it would translate into a net increase of the investment ratio by 2% of the EU’s GDP, which would result in a 20% increase in relative terms. Mr De Vijlder also specified that it is possible to calculate the total maximum amount which could be financed by the banking system, while the rest must come from capital markets.

The speaker subsequently elaborated on possible scenarios starting from the observation that the European Union is having a current account surplus, which implies that excess savings – compared to investments – serve to finance investments outside the EU. It would be preferable that this financing would stay in the EU – which macroeconomically would imply a higher investment rate for a given savings rate – to finance innovative projects, infrastructure, the energy transition, etc. Otherwise, at the end of the day, Europe will be losing out, as the source of financing of a given project, especially the more innovative and risky ones, will determine where the added value of the projects themselves would be allocated, he added. Based on these assumptions, he reiterated the importance of the establishment of a fully-fledged CMU in order to not lose out on investment opportunities and enhance economic sovereignty.

Mr de Vijlder also pointed to a lack of risk-bearing capacity of institutional investors in Europe. In that respect, he quoted a 2023 article by Martin Wolf published in the Financial Times that highlighted how the transition from defined benefit to defined contribution meant the risk-bearing capacity of the UK economy. The same dynamic can be applied to continental Europe, he emphasised. On the same note, he added that value creation is mainly coming from young companies and start-ups, as the economic literature confirms.

Against this backdrop, Mr De Vijlder concluded his speech by advocating for an EU institutional approach which focuses on the most important part of the Single Market Reform and the CMU. He also suggested not to take a “list-based approach” as it can be subject to horse trading, which would not only prolong the time needed for decision-making but also risk undermining the achievement of actual progress.

Paola Tamma concluded the first round of questions by asking Frank Niederländer what the next legislative mandate should concentrate on in order not to make the green growth model a burden to competitiveness.

Frank Niederländer viewed the upcoming European elections as a window of opportunities to create a new framework for the EU economy. He then pointed out that the European Green Deal has been a very positive shift in terms of vision, while the geopolitical and economic context has meanwhile changed and Europe needs to adapt to the new setting. Mr Niederländer welcomed the discussion around the topic of the need to foster manufacturing in Europe, innovation and financial markets, as he regarded those as the relevant challenges with which the European industry is confronted.

Mr Niederländer also emphasised that, on the one hand, the EU has fostered awareness around the globe on the question of the green transition, while, on the other hand, Europe is now feeling the sense of urgency to cope with the change of the geopolitical context. He also highlighted that large enterprises are used to dealing with global competitiveness-related questions, while others, especially those at a supply level, and particularly SMEs, often lack a strategy to cope with these challenges and need to be supported.

The speaker also expressed the belief that this new setting implies the need to couple the Green Deal with an Industrial Deal by bearing in mind that these two policy dimensions are complementary. He also specified that growth is fostered through innovation, and new technologies as well as with an innovation-friendly market and regulatory environment. He took the example of the process of electrification of the European market which benefited from several subsidies that, at a certain point, could not be continued and, eventually, the whole process suffered a setback. In this regard, Mr Niederländer highlighted the importance of market-based solutions for the green transition. He also stated that, as the transformation of the economy is undergoing, it is still to be seen how the European market will be able to adapt, how the infrastructure roll-out will be deployed and how consumers will react to these changes.

Finally, Mr Niederländer said that he looked forward to the publication of the Letta and Draghi reports as he noticed that the former is portraying the Single Market as a valuable asset for growth in Europe, while the latter is investigating ways to foster EU competitiveness in an increasingly complex global landscape.

Given that European car manufacturing is an exemplary sector as it is both present on global markets and feeling the consequences of foreign competition, Paola Tamma followed up with a question on the EU trade defence stances and the need for Europe to keep markets open.

Frank Niederländer first noted that competition has always been a significant part of doing business, while highlighting that BMW has been a longstanding advocate of free trade, as European companies have the means to be competitive in different markets and create wealth and growth for Europe through exports, as well.

The speaker also emphasised the question of innovation and the need for European companies to uptake innovative solutions whenever possible, as well as the fact that a large number of Europe’s patents are often exploited outside the EU, constituting a knowledge outflow to regions where capital markets are fitter to finance innovative projects. On the same note, he stated that bringing back that knowledge capital for the benefit of the European economy is surely a good practice to be fostered.

He also elaborated on the question of value chains by stating that they have become intrinsically global and it would be delusional to think that this setting will change in the short term. He took the case of raw materials processing as a primary example of this phenomenon. However, Mr Niederländer also highlighted the need to address in the medium and long term these trade imbalances, to the extent possible.

Mr Niederländer added that, as different relevant actors worldwide, especially the US and China, are devising new industrial policies, it is time for the EU to come up with its own plan and perhaps strike a balance between a prevalently regulation-based stance to an approach which focuses more on the enabling conditions for the industry, however by excluding the idea that the EU would be able to isolate itself from the world.

The moderator referred to the upcoming Letta and Draghi reports to ask the whole panel what they wished to see in them and how they should be followed up in the next legislative term.

Outi Slotboom expressed her positive sentiment for a fresh look at the future of the EU. She also stated that it will be necessary to take an approach that does not look back at what should have been done in the world in which we lived in the past but rather takes courageous stances on what is to be done to be prepared for the future, in a new economic context. She also stated that the geopolitical setting has changed, that the rules-based world trade order has weakened significantly in the last years and that the EU is now competing against several policies adopted by other actors across the world. She specified that the US Inflation Reduction Act as well as China’s state aid and export-control policies are major policies to take into consideration.

In addition, according to Ms Slotboom, the whole resilience agenda that emerged as a result of the pandemic has created a different perception of risk. In this regard, she stated that the Covid crisis has acted as an important wake-up call to understand the importance of diversification of supply sources and the need to be prepared for the possible negative consequences of external shocks.

Moving on to the climate change agenda, Ms Slotboom agreed with Mr Niederländer that a balanced and complementary industrial and green policy would be the best outcome for Europe’s economy. However, she added that becoming more energy-independent, adopting cleaner technologies and changing production methods are actions that will need to be financed. To do so, the EU not only needs more investments and a renewed investment-friendly environment, but also trade policies which make sure that Europe’s stance on climate change does not penalise its industry. Ms Slotboom also expressed her interest in understanding which approach the Letta and the Draghi reports will have regarding the question of competitiveness in relation to the EU enlargement process

Jacques Pelkmans replied to the question by pointing out that  several aspects of the EU Single Market have not been seriously addressed, especially regarding the question of free movement of services, namely those which are included in the Services Directive and those which are simply regulated, such as the financial ones. The speaker reiterated that he did not see determination, especially from the European Council, to go deeper on these matters. For this reason, Professor Pelkmans called on the Competitiveness Council to take serious commitments and coordinate with other European institutions to make progress in this domain.

The moderator opened the floor for questions from the audience. The first question concerned regulatory burdens to trade, such as those applied to the car industry, as innovative companies often struggle to meet regulatory requirements from both the US and the EU. The attendee asked whether this was a concern for the Single Market reform and how the EU could address this question.

Frank Niederländer started by explaining that regulations worldwide are often very different and they sometimes constitute non-tariff obstacles to trade, while questioning to what extent this was a Single Market-related issue, as EU harmonisation is notably quite advanced. He subsequently stated that perhaps the most interesting element stemming from this question regards innovation and took the example of autonomous driving. After being able to be licenced in Germany, the speaker explained how BMW became the first company to obtain an autonomous driving system license in China. Against this backdrop, he argued that the swiftness and flexibility concepts could be new features of an innovative industry policy and they could also constitute a good basis for the start of a dialogue with EU institutions on how to foster competitiveness.

Paola Tamma then referred to the panel a question about over-regulation, referring to the European Commission’s stance to reduce regulatory burdens companies face in the EU. In this connection, she asked whether the EU should embrace a more regulatory or a more “hands-off” approach to foster a fully functioning EU Single Market.

Outi Slotboom took the stage and started by saying that the European Commission is working towards ambitious goals to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens. She also pointed out that the assessment of existing burdens has already led to several proposals for their elimination, with special regard to the regulatory aspects which concern SMEs. At the same time, it is important to note that EU rules often replace 27 different national rules, thereby simplifying the regulatory framework for companies which operate across the Single Market. In other cases, new legal obligations have arisen in the context of new policy ambitions, such as the European Green Deal. She subsequently highlighted that the European Commission is encouraging regulatory sandboxing, through which new legislation is tested and which leaves scope for innovative regulatory approaches.

At the same time, Ms Slotboom affirmed that there are many areas in which regulation is required and recalled that the EU has emerged as a global leader in many areas of regulation. In this context, she referred to the ‘Brussels effect’, which has highlighted how third countries often take examples from EU regulations as they are regarded as high-quality legislative acts and as compliance with EU rules facilitates access to the large EU market. In addition, she stressed the need to have climate and social norms worldwide.

Coming back to the previous statement from Professor Pelkmans, Ms Slotboom stated that the effective enforcement of rules is also of paramount importance and that several member states could perform better in many instances. She subsequently explained how the core of the question of overregulation does not always lie in the EU law itself but in its transposition and compliance at a national level.

Paola Tamma asked the panel which lesson the EU could learn from other actors and took the example of the US as a primary example in terms of financial capital.

William de Vijlder started by saying that, when taking the example of the US, we should be aware of the historical risk of creating bubbles. However, he continued by mentioning that several attributes gave the US a comparatively stronger position, such as the opportunity to issue 401(k) plans. Moreover, he expressed the belief that the assumptions made in terms of returns are admittedly sometimes outlandish, while, on the other hand, stating that US institutional investors can take a very long horizon, as they are less confronted with pro-cyclical risk-reduction obligations.

Mr De Vijlder also highlighted that we should be wary of the ‘winner takes it all’ phenomenon to argue that, if the EU is unable to make progress on the CMU, the Single Market’s fragmentation would deepen, suffer from a lack of liquidity and witness a ‘magnet effect’, whereby start-ups and venture capital companies opt for other countries or regions, being more attractive for them.

The speaker concluded by stating that the European banking sector has been advocating for progress on the CMU and on other fundamental files, such as the Banking Union, for several years now. Indeed, he stated that the European banking sector would highly benefit from a less fragmented and more agile EU capital market.

Jacques Pelkmans took to the floor to mention, as an example of fragmentation, how the unitary patent system would be valuable progress compared to having 27 different national patents.

Outi Slotboom came back to the question of whether Europe has learnt from the laws of third countries by making two examples. The first one concerned the economic resilience agenda. In this regard, she noted that the European Commission has been looking at what other countries were doing by analysing, for instance, how the US is working with companies and collecting information under the Defence Procurement Act, or how the Japanese government has managed to stockpile critical goods. A summary of third countries resilience policies has been published as an annex to the European Commission’s publication of the ‘Single Market at 30’ publication and the 2024 Single Market and Competitiveness Report.

The second example made by Ms Slotboom concerned the US Inflation Reduction Act, one of the most successful elements of which is that the investment permitting procedure is simpler and faster than in the EU. Indeed, she acknowledged that a company which wishes to invest in Europe would need to apply for several permits, thus resulting in more costly and time-consuming processes. The European Commission’s Single Market Enforcement Taskforce (SMET) has looked at procedures in EU member states to verify whether the necessary permits could be issued more swiftly.

The moderator then turned to Frank Niederländer to ask him what his plea for the next EU institutional mandate would be.

Mr Niederländer started by quoting Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who stated that the EU has a green deal, but does not have a business case for it, yet. He also highlighted how the put into place of the European Green Deal has been followed up, in their respective specific declinations, both in China and the US. Mr Niederländer subsequently expressed the need for a renewed vision and improved self-confidence in the European project to move forward and look at the future more optimistically. He reiterated the idea of the need for less regulation as opposed to stronger incentives and more openness to innovation and technology openness in order to foster EU competitiveness. In this respect, he referred to a concept of the keynote speech previously held, namely “that the technology to attain climate neutrality is not here yet” and underscored the importance of stepping up investments in innovation, while cutting, to the extent possible, the EU’s regulatory red tape.

Outi Slotboom entered the discussion to add that the EU is one of the global regulatory superpowers and the largest exporting block in the world trade arena. Given the numerous demands regarding both industrial policies and the Single Market performance, she highlighted the need to discuss to what extent financial resources are allocated to the European level to achieve these legitimate goals.

The Q&A session covered the following issues: the scenario after the European elections regarding the Single Market reform, the question of implementing EU rules at EU level, the question of startups funding in Europe, the question of the fears of political leaders when it comes to the strengthening of the Single Market and put in place structural reforms, the AI Act and the question of innovation, the political momentum behind the question of the Single Market reform.

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