Michel Barnier's appointment as markets commissioner has worried many
By Kabir Chibber
Business reporter, BBC News
"The zeitgeist has changed."
Indeed it has. Before late 2008, the UK's economy - the third-largest in the European Union (EU) - was the envy of most of its neighbours.
The financial sector was booming, fuelling a decade of growth. Proud British officials in Brussels would push other countries to open their economies and curb protectionism. Make your economy more like ours, they argued.
Now, the collapse of the UK economy has been averted with an unprecedented level of taxpayer intervention. Which has in turn fuelled unprecedented levels of government debt. Unemployment is at the highest since 1995.
Suddenly, the neighbours are not so envious anymore.
"The crisis has made people question whether there is something wrong with the Anglo-Saxon model," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
'Rush of blood'
His pro-European think tank was the co-organiser of a conference in central London on Thursday to discuss the UK's role in the EU as the financial crisis recedes from memory.
Many of the delegates seemed jittery.
In their views, the French and the Germans are in the ascendancy in Europe, while the British influence is fading.
They fear France and Germany are out for revenge, leading to a flood of new Europe-wide regulation aimed at preventing a future crisis that will drive banks out of the City of London and overwhelm UK businesses with red tape.
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, one of the keynote speakers, was keen to emphasise that the UK's voice was still strong in Europe.
"People do listen to us when we are thinking European," he said, arguing that the UK could fight off more regulation.
"We need to push back against this - intelligently," he said. "We need to guide that debate... rather than join some unthinking rush of blood to the head."
Whereas the UK is expected to exit recession only in the last three months of 2009 - after the longest contraction since records began in 1955 - France and Germany both returned to growth in the April-to-June quarter.
The much stricter regulatory regime and greater role of the state in the economy of both eurozone countries was attributed for this quick recovery.
"Frankly, I don't think there's a great deal we can learn from the French on banks," Lord Mandelson said, though he added that "they have a lot of sense" and much to contribute to the regulatory debate.
But he quickly followed with: "We do have a lot to learn from the French about long-term investment in the industry," he said.
"There is a case for the design - but not the implementation - of regulation to be at the level of the single market," Lord Mandelson argued.
His more contrite comments reflect the new reality: the UK cannot tell its neighbours what is best with its economy in tatters.
It has lost the moral high ground.
Much of the worry the UK is feeling comes from the appointment of France's Michel Barnier as the EU's internal markets commissioner.
His brief includes the control over the banking sector - much of which is concentrated in London.
Lord Mandelson says the UK's interests will be protected
French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the UK as the "losers" when it was announced that the make-up of the new European Commission included Mr Barnier, Mr Sarkozy's former agriculture minister.
France has been a proponent of heavier regulation of banks since the crisis started in 2008 - pushing for taxes on banker bonuses and global supervision.
Mr Barnier's appointment was reported in the British press as an arch-socialist seizing control of the European economy.
But the new commissioner moved to allay concerns in testimony before the European Parliament on Wednesday.
"I'm not going to be taking orders from Paris, London or anywhere else," Mr Barnier said, telling UK conservative MEP Syed Kamall that he believed in a "strong City".
Lord Mandelson also had praise for Mr Barnier, saying there was nothing for the UK to worry about from the man whom he dealt with regularly while Lord Mandelson was at the European Commission.
"Don't be fooled by the media," he said. "I worked closely with him and he's going to bring a lot of forward-looking common sense."
"The next five years - the life and tenure of this commission - are going to be incredibly important."
Yet Mr Barnier made it clear that things would change.
"It is in the interests of Europe's financial sector to be regulated smartly and efficiently," he said.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the conversations between the financial services sector in London and regulators in Brussels will be quite different.
One panellist - a Financial Times journalist - jokingly noted that in Mr Barnier's French-language testimony, he used the terms 'hedge fund' and 'private equity'. Apparently, there are no equivalents in his native tongue.
Many British companies and lobbyists are worried about whether they will have a voice at all in Europe, with so many blaming free market orthodoxy for the woes that most countries are still only just emerging from.
There is also the issue of the UK elections this year, which might produce a Conservative government that would be much more sceptical towards Europe.
Godfrey Bloom, the MEP for the UK Independence Party - which wants the UK to leave the EU - was particularly scathing about Mr Barnier's views during this week's hearings at the European Parliament, and warned him against introducing excessive regulation.
So, how will the UK find itself treated in the future?
"We have to show more humility," according to Roland Rudd, chairman of Business for New Europe, the other pro-Europe think tank to host the conference.
"But this underlines the fact that we need to be more engaged."