In the context of the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), the European 2015 SME Assembly was organised by the European Commission in Luxembourg, from 18 to 20 November 2015, as the culmination of the European SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) Week.
The conference, which sets out to be a major event for SMEs in Europe, seeks to offer these enterprises a platform for exchange and debate, and thus to enable them to participate in shaping policies specific to their needs. The Secretary of State for the Economy, Francine Closener, and the Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, opened the debates on 19 November, in the presence of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Maria Teresa.
The Presidency wishes to highlight and develop 'European added value' by 'attacking in every way possible the 'cost of non-Europe''.
Congratulating the Commission 'on its indefatigable efforts' in organising the assembly every year, Francine Closener stressed that the conference provided 'a unique opportunity for exchange for all those operating in the sector', including entrepreneurs, representatives of public authorities and local, regional or European representatives. 'This meeting enables us to clarify the objectives of our respective policies, and is an opportunity for SMEs to get involved in the core of EU policy', she said.
The Secretary of State reminded those present that in Luxembourg, 99 % of enterprises are SMEs, and that the government therefore attached vital importance to 'an ambitious policy for SMEs'. She said that this was also a priority of the Luxembourg Presidency, and is being developed at various levels.
Francine Closener stressed the fact that business policy relates not only to Ministers for the Economy, with an enormous number of important decisions for SMEs being taken in other configurations of the Council of the EU, such as decisions on environmental requirements or food labelling.
With this in mind, the Luxembourg Presidency 'has devoted considerable efforts' to moving forward with 'mainstreaming' competitiveness, namely developing a cross-cutting approach that takes the needs of business, and particularly SMEs, into account across all policy areas of the EU. 'Ministers for the Economy are now closely involved with subjects falling within the responsibility of other configurations of the Council that have an impact on competitiveness in general', she said.
Another priority for the Presidency in this field is to highlight and develop 'European added value', in particular by 'attacking in every way possible the 'cost of non-Europe',' stressed Francine Closener. Referring to the continued existence of national regulations and standards that only apply within one Member State, the Secretary of State said that these rules were synonymous with costs, and that this applied both to the digital world as well as the 'offline' one.
Thus, the cost for an SME wishing to export to another Member State is on average EUR 10,000 per market, noted the Secretary of State, or EUR 280,000 for the EU as a whole. 'It is impossible for an SME that does not have a successful legal department and considerable financial resources to comply with 28 different national legal systems'. One of the Presidency's priorities in this field is therefore to 'reduce the cost of crossing borders', which 'requires common rules'.
In Francine Closener's view, completing the Internal Market is the best way to implement this policy. 'We hope to set up a legal framework that is more appropriate for SMEs […], that encourages them to extend their activities across national borders and that enables them to exploit the potential of a single market of 500 million consumers'.
The Secretary of State also expressed a desire for the Commission 'to go back to the idea of revising the Small Business Act, which is the strategic framework for the EU's policies on SMEs. 'For the Presidency, it is an essential element in underlining our ambitions for SMEs, including in terms of visibility', said Francine Closener.
'Our SMEs need the highest level of visibility', she continued, welcoming the fact that the opening address focused on female entrepreneurship. 'This is an opportunity to become more aware of the place of women in society and their contribution to the economy', added the Secretary of State, noting that in Luxembourg, 18 % of existing businesses are headed by women. 'In order to combat inequality, we must encourage, in all possible ways, women who wish to make the move […] towards living their dreams and ambitions', she concluded.
The European Commission says that it is necessary to encourage SMEs, which are 'the best place for creating growth and jobs'.
Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, who is also the EU SME Envoy within the network of SME envoys, stressed that it was necessary for all those involved to work together to make the EU 'the best place for entrepreneurs to start a business and make it grow', because businesses 'are the engine for job creation and economic growth'.
In this regard, SMEs have 'a major role to play', she said, noting that in 2014 SMEs had started hiring again, with growth of 1.2 % in terms of employment. 'In other words, SMEs have helped to create over 1 million new jobs', said the Commissioner, who believes it is therefore necessary to encourage these small and medium-sized enterprises, which are 'the best place for creating growth and jobs'. According to the Commissioner, in this context it is necessary to listen to entrepreneurs, because they 'know what needs to be done to simplify their lives and encourage others to follow them'. 'For our part, we want to identify what SMEs need from the EU'.
Elżbieta Bieńkowska also said that while the single market had brought significant benefits, particularly in terms of choice and price for consumers and opportunities for businesses and professionals, 'we all know that SMEs do not make use of all the opportunities on offer'. 'When SMEs want to export, they face too many obstacles' and 'too often, consumers who want to buy from another Member State cannot benefit from the best prices and conditions', she added, noting that this situation needed to change immediately.
The Commissioner stressed that the Commission had decided, in this context, to 'reinvigorate' the internal market, unveiling its new strategy on the subject, which contains 'many ambitious but practical measures'. The strategy is founded upon three main principles: creating new opportunities for all those involved, supporting innovation and, finally, ensuring that the practical benefits are enjoyed by everyone.
Elżbieta Bieńkowska also emphasised the need to ensure compliance with EU rules in the area and to provide the resources to ensure they are applied; current procedures are sometimes so lengthy that they can drive a business into insolvency, which is 'unacceptable'. 'As Member States and economic operators, we must all work together to create real progress on compliance with the single market rules', she said. Work also needs to be done on the lack of comprehension of certain rules, and on avoiding creating new layers of regulation.
'The Commission is determined to do its work, but we need the assistance and commitment of the Member States, at all levels, and of the stakeholders, in order to succeed', concluded the Commissioner.