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Readying European enterprises for renewed growth

European efforts to support enterprises, particularly smaller ones, and to promote industrial competitiveness can help achieve the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Now the European Commission has called on stakeholders to help define a post-2013 framework for business support measures.

Enterprises are high on the European political agenda. In recent years, the EU has provided businesses, and particularly SMEs, with support in a variety of areas, including access to finance, making use of EU’s single market, support services for finding business partners in other EU countries and beyond Europe’s borders, as well as funding pilot projects for innovative products or services. But the EU has also supported incubating innovation, promoted standardisation, has worked on the simplification of European legislation, and the promotion of energy efficiency.

In terms of access to finance, the EU has put in place a number of financial instruments, with a budget of over €1billion (2007-2013) to facilitate access to loans and equity finance for SMEs. Each euro invested in this way leverages an average of €6 in risk capital or €50 in bank loans, which means it should generate some €30 billion in new finance for SMEs. To date, nearly 80 000 SMEs have received loans thanks to the SME guarantee facility.

In addition, €1.3 billion of venture capital has been mobilised for highly innovative SMEs. In fact, one of the teams being partly supported by EU-backed venture capital funds has among its members the winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov.

Nurturing entrepreneurship and competitiveness

Providing SMEs with adequate business support is a top priority for the EU. One major success in this area has been the Enterprise Europe Network. With some 600 partner organisations in 48 countries, the network provides SMEs across Europe with a whole range of support services to enable them to innovate, to make the most of the EU’s single market and to seize internationalisation opportunities.

Each partner organisation in the network is a ‘one-stop shop’ for help in finding business contacts, promoting technology transfer and accessing European funding opportunities. Staff can also advise on EU law and the network’s ‘no wrong door’ policy ensures that no matter which partner takes the call, the client will be personally directed to the service or organisation that best meets their needs.

Since its creation in 2008, the network has provided information and services to more than 2.5 million SMEs, organised brokerage events for over 30 000 businesses, helped European enterprises to ink over 3 000 co-operation agreements, has conducted over 75 000 technology and company reviews, and much more.

EU efforts also focus on promoting entrepreneurship. An example of this is the SME Week, which, among other things, organises fairs, conferences and workshops across the 27 Member States and other countries.

Reinvent or improve the wheel?

These actions are financed under the €3.6-billion Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP). “At its halfway stage, it has already delivered remarkable results,” said Heinz Zourek, Director-General of the European Commission’s Enterprise and Industry DG, at a recent conference on the future of the CIP which was attended by more than 550 participants.

At the conference, stakeholders were invited to share their views on shaping future EU support for business and a post-2013 possible successor to the CIP, which would help achieve the ambitious objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy. One of the main messages to emerge loud and clear from the gathering was “Don’t fix what is not broken”.

The CIP has been a success, especially regarding the participation of SMEs and the creation of an environment favourable to their competitiveness, innovation capacity and job creation. Therefore, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, most participants agreed, although there is a need to improve it and adapt it to changing circumstances.

A clearer awareness of the difference between research and innovation, and how the two can complement each other, was required, some participants pointed out. Innovation is a broader concept than research – for example, products and services could be innovative without drawing on new research. In this context, ensuring the wider uptake of innovations and bringing them to the market are key to future growth.

Building on the current achievements

In any case, the need for continuity and stability of actions was underlined. The CIP’s support to venture capital funds has been largely successful, participants agreed. “The value added [for venture capital] achieved by CIP was very significant,” noted Marc Schublin of the European Investment Fund (EIF), which manages much of the CIP’s venture capital activities. “In a market place with 27 Member States, there is a different type of value added in each country.”

Another promising area to be explored concerns the improvement of synergies between the CIP and the Structural Funds, which would enable the potential of regions as multipliers of the obtained results to be better exploited, thus contributing to the Europe 2020 objectives of smart and sustainable growth.

Compared with other EU programmes, the CIP is quite simple, straightforward and flexible, most participants agreed. Nevertheless, it could still be further streamlined, especially by making its successor programme even more flexible so that it can adapt to changing market realities.

For the European Commission, SMEs, the backbone of the European economy and key innovators, remain a central focus of any successor to the CIP. “SMEs are a priority for me and the European Commission,” said Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, who is responsible for industry and entrepreneurship. “SMEs today have to try and become more consumer-minded, more productive while, at the same time, they have to find innovative solutions. This is quite a challenge, alongside other challenges, such as globalisation.”

Promoting a favourable business environment

In order to design the best possible successor to the CIP and ensure that it meets stakeholders’ needs, the European Commission organised an online consultation, which ran from 8 November 2010 to 11 February 2011, to canvass the views of stakeholders.

Although a detailed analysis of the responses has not yet been finalised, some interesting initial results have emerged. At least 676 responses were received of which a fifth were from SMEs. Over 90% of respondents rated highly the need for an EU programme that seeks to facilitate the creation of a favourable business environment, including support for commercialisation of innovative products and services, targets SMEs, and provides sector-specific support. Some 90% were in favour of supporting better access to finance from local sources (venture capital and loans) to finance the start-up and growth of SMEs. PM © European Commission

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