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From the Brussels office

15 February 10

The EU Parliament hearings on the incoming European Commissioners, and some of the policies that may be pursued during their term

by Andrew Laidlaw

Up to scratch?

With candidates making reference to personalities that ranged from Adam Smith to Adam and Eve, the European Parliament’s scrutiny of the incoming European Commissioners showed them to be a mixed bag.

Following the round of “hearings” of each candidate, the Parliament got one scalp (so far) – Bulgarian Rumiana Jeleva – who has since been replaced. Barring any further hiccups, the Parliament should vote to approve the incoming executive on 9 February. Commission President José Manuel Barroso and his 26 colleagues will play a key role in steering the EU machine for the next five years. So what does all this mean for practitioners?

By the end of this new Commission’s term of office you could well be advising employers on new working time rules. Business and consumers could well be grappling with new consumer protection rules, and the latter may have lost their right to reject goods. The rules governing how lawyers themselves work in other EU countries could have been updated.

If the incoming Justice Commissioner is to be believed, an EU regime for contract law or a “civil code” could be much closer to reality. In addition, debt recovery could be at the push of a button, and criminal records automatically translated for use in another country’s trial.

“Ambitious” is one word to describe the lady from Luxembourg, a Commissioner since 1999. Viviane Reding will be responsible for civil justice as well as equality and fundamental rights. Everything from cradle to grave could fall under her purview, including: the rights you have as an EU citizen; rules on marriage and divorce; and rules governing your estate when you move on from this life.

Also, a Frenchman could have changed the landscape of financial regulation across the UK and the rest of the EU. Former French Government minister, a Commissioner under Romano Prodi, and currently an MEP, Michel Barnier emphasised the importance of ethics and responsibility during his hearing in Parliament. In response to comments that he should not kill the “goose that lays the golden eggs”, he noted that it was in the City’s interests to be well regulated. Indeed he considered that good regulation would improve competitiveness and innovation in the City. Repeated applause during the meeting underlined the popularity of his approach compared to that of his predecessor, Charlie McCreevy.

Others fared less well in their attempts to charm the EU’s parliamentarians. Current Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes, was called back for a second round behind closed doors after MEPs from all sides noted her disappointing performance. Contrast that with Joaquim Almunia, the Spaniard set to take over Kroes’s dossier as she takes on the digital agenda. While often non-committal, he was clear in his support of the Commission’s current fining policies and of improving the lot of those entitled to claim damages against cartelists and other competition law infringers, such as through collective actions. His responsibilities will also extend to ensuring that bailouts and subsidies given during the financial crisis comply with the EU’s state aid rules. The list of issues and areas of practice that will be affected is too long to reproduce here. Nevertheless the need for the legal profession to be aware of what’s coming and to contribute to these discussions is undeniable, irrespective of the political figures driving the agenda.

Andrew Laidlaw is the Deputy Head of the joint Law Societies’ Brussels Office. For more information about the EU-related work of the Society and its Brussels office or to subscribe to their electronic newsletters, visit www.lawscot.org.uk/ Members_Information/international .

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