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Antonio Tajani: Putting the EU in entrepreneur

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What are your top priorities until 2014? How are you planning to help Europe’s SMEs?

Antonio Tajani: For my remaining term as a commissioner, I’m putting a great emphasis on improving the business environment and the conditions to starting, running or transferring a business. 

I’ve set a target to reduce the start-up time for new enterprises to three working days and the cost to €100 by 2012. Member states have also been asked to reduce the amount of time it takes to get licences and permits to three months by the end of 2013.  And I’m actively promoting the application of the “only once” principle, where public authorities should refrain from continuously requesting the same information or documents from businesses, which have already been submitted. 

By 2013, I want honest entrepreneurs to be given a second chance by limiting the discharge time and debt settlement after bankruptcy to a maximum of three years.

Access to finance is a big issue for SMEs. What are you doing to improve the situation?

Antonio Tajani: Several EU programmes are in place to overcome market failures in financing SMEs.

First, the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme provides loan guarantees and equity investments, and has already helped over 110,000 SMEs. 

Second, most member states – including the UK – are using Europe’s regional funds. About €5bn has been allocated to loan guarantees and equity investments so far.

Third, the European Investment Bank, which has lent €30bn to SMEs in 2008-10.

And we’re also working on a true single market for venture capital, facilitating cross-border investment and fundraising.

But we also need to do more to promote business angel investment, expand the provision of easily accessible business support services, reduce the red tape involved in applying for grants, and make sure that the banks are in a position to lend to SMEs despite the more stringent capital requirements. There’s a long way to go.

What role does entrepreneurship play in the European economic recovery?

Antonio Tajani: Europe’s 23 million SMEs constitute more than 99 per cent of all businesses – 80 per cent of all new jobs in Europe in the past five years have been created by SMEs. So entrepreneurs are vital.

But only 45 per cent of EU citizens would like to be self-employed, compared to 55 per cent of Americans or  71 per cent of Chinese. 

We need to create a more favourable climate for young people to consider entrepreneurship as a career option.

This is one of the primary objectives of the Small Business Act for Europe, which is a comprehensive, modern framework for SMEs that marks a significant step forward in fostering an entrepreneurial culture and in simplifying the regulatory and administrative environment for SMEs. It’s also closely linked to our Europe 2020 strategy, our economic reform programme, which highlights the role of SMEs as the motor of economic recovery.

How is the Commission helping British SMEs export to other European countries?

Antonio Tajani: In addition to the broader policy initiatives I’ve told you about already, the Enterprise Europe Network is one of our flagship programmes to help SMEs access markets in other European countries. 

The network is made up of almost 600 partner organisations across the EU and provides a wide range of services to SMEs, helping them access market information, overcome legal obstacles and identify potential business and technology partners. In the UK, the network is made up of 11 regional offices, which employ 150 people to help SMEs do business in other EU countries.

How can European SMEs compete against huge emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, etc?

Antonio Tajani: It’s crucial for us to help SMEs fully tap into the economic potential of the global markets, as much of the economic growth opportunities will come from there.

We support direct measures to help SMEs enter third-country markets – for example, with our EU SME Centre in Beijing or our European Business and Technology Centres in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta in India. 

These are complimented by coordinatedaction at policy level through our Market Access Teams, which hold bilateral talks to promote EU SMEs internationally.

I believe there’s a need for a coherent and effective strategy, and so by the end of this year, we intend to publish a report outlining the main measures aimed at supporting EU SMEs in third-country markets. Based on this, a so-called “International Business Portal” will be created, providing an overview of available support for SMEs looking to do business outside of Europe, including what help is available to small businesses at EU, national and regional levels.

Where do you see the next big opportunities for SMEs?

Antonio Tajani: There are big opportunities for SMEs in the transition to a low carbon economy. The global market for environmental protection is around €1trn and some predict that this will triple by 2020. 

Europe already produces world-leading eco-technologies. The EU’s core environmental industries, which are active in the fields of pollution management and control, waste collection and treatment, renewable energy and recycling, have a combined turnover of more than €300bn and provide nearly 3.5 million jobs.

One of our initiatives on Key Enabling Technologies – such as photonics, nanotechnology, and advanced manufacturing systems – aims to accelerate innovation cycles and renew our industrial base by promoting the development of high-tech products.

New technologies are, in most cases, developed by spin-off companies and start-ups. Our policies will, in particular, target the product development phase, which will provide a lot of new business opportunities for SMEs.

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