Wednesday, March 17, 2010
We've been here before
The Spanish EU Presidency yesterday decided to shelve a vote on the proposed AIFM Directive on hedge funds and private equity due to "a last-minute intervention by Gordon Brown", according to the FT. The talks apparently stalled on British concerns over the protectionist elements of the Directive, which could see barriers put up to non-EU funds trading in the EU.
We have estimated that the industry contributed €6.1 billion in tax revenues in the UK alone and €9.2bn overall - an amount that could be under threat if a flawed directive is passed. We have also consistently warned that the protectionist provisions entailed in the proposal would cut off offshore managers and funds from the EU market. This will have at least two negative consequences: less choice and value for money for EU investors (including pension funds and charities) and less capital for European firms struggling to rebalance their books in the wake of the economic downturn. Therefore, the British Government's focus on the protectionist dimension is in principle welcome.
The FT reports that Paris "agreed to defer a vote" in order to avoid appearing to inflict "a defeat on Britain". A vote could have been forced on the UK because this Directive will eventually be decided by qualified majority voting. The question is will anything have changed when ministers next look at the Directive in either May or June.
There are also worrying parallels with what happened with the Temporary Agency Workers Directive in 2007. Then, as today, the FT reported that Brown had "personally intervened to defend Britain’s flexible labour market" and delay agreement on the Directive when it looked as though the UK would be outvoted. However, within a year the UK had been out-foxed and was forced to accept the Directive with only minor concessions. In addition, the UK almost lost its separate opt-out from the EU's 48 hour cap on the working week, entailed in the Working Time Directive, as a horsetrading deal involving the two Directives came dangerously close to backfiring at the hands of the European Parliament.
The Government will no doubt portray yesterday as a victory. And although the postponement of the finance ministers' vote on the proposal leaves UK negotiators, the industry, investors and others with some extra room to find allies and bolster the case for a radically amended Directive, today's developments provide no guarantee that this is going to be straightforward. A vote in the Council is now expected at the finance ministers' meeting on May 18th, meaning that for the time being all eyes will be on the European Parliament (whose economic committee will vote on a draft proposal on April 22nd). The key for MEPs is now to resist protectionist urges.
The postponement of the Council vote also adds another dimension to what already is a very complex amendment process. The British general elections will take place on May 6th, meaning that should the Conservatives win, they will be faced with a major showdown in Brussels after less than two weeks in office.
Whether this is a good or a bad thing for the fate of the AIFM Directive depends on a number of factors, including how much energy and political capital a Conservative government considers it can spend on this (the Tory treasury team is not short of challenges as it is); and how willing European partners are to give concessions to a Conservative government early on, in order to secure its future constructive engagement in EU affairs. This, in turn, depends on what a Conservative government is willing to concede in return, i.e. future concessions on agricultural spending, social legislation and so forth. In Brussels, as ever, nothing is free.
One thing is for certain, this is not a good time for the UK government to let its guard down on the AIFM Directive. Indeed, we've been here before.