A backlash against European Union-sanctioned austerity represents a "sombre development" that risks sacrificing the gains of the single market, EU commissioner Michel Barnier has warned.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Herald to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of the successor to the Common Market, Barnier said the single or internal market, which guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people, accounts for 45% of all exports from Scotland, with a value of £9.8 billion in 2010.

Apparently responding to the rise in Euroscepticism across the EU since the Eurozone crisis, Barnier acknowledged that the single market was "not perfect" and pledged a programme of projected improvements to help businesses and workers in areas such as access to funds, patents and digital communications. But he called on Scots to appreciate the "major benefits" the single market has brought, noting that it has "transformed the way Europeans live, work, travel, do business and study".

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"[The Single Market] has opened up new opportunities for businesses to expand and become successful globally. Many SMEs can now sell their goods and services across borders, without specific taxes or other obstacles. They have benefited from common European standards and the possibility for products lawfully produced or marketed in one member state to be freely traded in any other. Trade between EU countries has risen from 12% to 22% of EU GDP between 1992 and 2011, and EU exports to non-EU countries have also risen dramatically."

However, in a reference to the wave of sometimes violent popular protests across the Continent, he warned that "the Single Market risks being the first victim of these sombre developments, whereas it should be regarded as one of our main assets to help get us out of the crisis."

The Single Market emerged from the Single European Act. It was launched on January 1, 1993.