Milan, 20-21 November 1997
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Buon Giorno !
It is an honour for me have the opportunity of speaking at this important European Conference of Crafts and Small Enterprises.
I am particularly pleased for the presence here of Ministers, and of 1500 participants, government officials, social partners, experts and economic operators from 25 countries across the European Union, and its partners in Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Such broad, and high level participation demonstrates the importance of the sector in our economies.
It is not by chance that Milano was chosen as the Host City. It is because Italy has one of the most dynamic craft and small enterprise sectors in Europe, accounting for 34% of all such enterprises in the European Union.
I would like to thank our hosts from the Regione Lombardia, Minister Bersani and the Italian authorities. And I would like to congratulate them on their splendid organisation of the Conference.
The main themes for discussion at this Conference have been prepared very thoroughly by way of 11 pre-conferences. I would like to thank all those who were involved in hosting these pre-conferences. Your work has been very important in the preparations for Milano.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is one very clear reason, why this sector has assumed such significance over the past few years. And, why we, in the Commission, are trying to assist its development. The reason is the important contribution of this sector to employment.
Today unemployment directly affects over 18 million of Europe's citizens. This is clearly an unacceptable situation, a major concern for Europe, and a serious threat to the coherence and prosperity of our society.
Employment creation is therefore the major challenge of our societies. It is our main social, economic and political aim.
Although many large-scale industries have been declining, crafts and small businesses have shown a remarkable ability to create new jobs.
Crafts and small enterprises represent 90 % of the small and medium enterprise sector.
This Conference offers added momentum to our fight against unemployment. Our aim is to produce concrete proposals for initiatives to be undertaken at European and national level. Initiatives, which will ease the burdens on crafts and small enterprises, facilitate the creation of new enterprises lead to greater growth and employment, and through targetted intervention tostimulate actions at local and regional level.
In our policies in favour of craft and small businesses, we put particular emphasis on assitance for women entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs from disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic minorities.
During the last years, we have intensified our efforts to simplify and improve Community legislation, and to increase transparency. We also have supported best practice in order to create better and business friendly administrative and regulatory environment, as well as imrove access to public procurement contracts.
We all agree that certain aspects of this business environment, need improvement. This was the message of the Amsterdam Summit, and we have responded by setting up the Task Force on Simplification of Business Environment, the Best Task Force. And, I am happy to say that its President Professor Chris Evans and the members of the Task Force are with us these two days.
We also need to face effectively the late payment problem. We need to facilitate the development of specific financial instruments, which will provide credit opportunities for crafts and small enterprises.
On late payments, the response of Member States to the Commission Recommendation has been very disappointing. I have already announced my intention to propose to the Commission, a Directive to solve the late payments problems in commercial transactions by both the private and public sector.
I would also like to underline the importance of our new initiative for a special fund to help small business to carry out joint ventures within the boundaries of the Union.
The JEV initiative, as it is called, will fund part of the costs incurred in setting up a joint venture between at least two European small-medium enterprises with an overall maximum Community contribution of ECU 100.000 per project.
We recognize the need to enhance competitivity, integrate small businesses and crafts into the single market and improve their capacity to compete in the global market.
Moreover, we need to improve access to research, innovation and training. The craft sector has always been at the forefront of innovation. And it, also, should be at the forefront in the efforts to solve the problems of overcoming the skill shortages which are emerging.
Access to information is the key for entering new markets. Several new markets will be introduced throught the information society. So, we have placed prioirty on the introduction of electronic commerce.
And the major question for crafts is, if the sector can adapt to the needs of changing markets. We need to make the most of the opportunities offered by new technology and new markets. We need to develop further business cooperation with third countries, particularly with Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. And these are, of course, major themes of this conference.
I am pleased to say that a pilot action is being undertaken this year to establish a European Prize for Contemporary Art- and Design-led Crafts, with the cooperation of UEAPME, the European Association for Crafts and SMEs and the World Crafts Council Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With the Milano Conference we wish to ensure that greater account is taken of the sector's specific features and potential. We also wish to improve the flow of information to representative bodies and businesses themselves.
One of the important actions we must take is to ensure that a regular and consistent dialogue takes place between the representatives of the small business and the decision makers.
I would like to stress that enterprise policy is at the center of our policies against unemployment and at the center of the creation of a strong internal market, a strong Europe.
In this we are not only looking at promoting technological innovation, but we are looking at innovating to tackle our employment challenge.
The theme of the Conference "Employment through Innovation" refers to a double challenge. The crucial role crafts and small enterprises have to play in terms of growth and job creation in Europe.
I will not attempt to pre-judge the conclusions of this Conference. It is your Conference, and it is for you to determine how best the interests of the sector can be served.
But the level of the participation at the Milan Conference, together with the range of expertise contributing to the debates, will make the conclusions the most complete consensus on our future policy direction.
Promotion of entrepreneurship and of enterprise culture is a major priority within Europe in the framework of our enterprise policy. We need to stimulate and develop entrepreneurship in Europe, since successful enterprises depend upon the people who run them.
In Europe we have to change the way we think about business and business people. I would like to see the development of a new culture regarding entrepreneurship in Europe.
The challenge to stimulate a truly entrepeneurial culture requires the right environemnt for starting an enterprise and for ensuring its survival. But it also requires a clear commitment to education and training.
I believe that we should introduce this concept in our educational system and university programmes. Today, we are facing radical changes in economic and social relations. Our educational system should not prepare our young people only to become employees. It should give them the necessary grounding to develop entrepreneurial activities.
Europe is not short of ideas or of talented engineers and scientists. We are not short of people who are capable of competing against the best in the world. We need to encourage them, rather than hinder them or try to control them. We need to offer help, advice and co-operation, rather than barriers or burdens. We need to understand the problems which prevent them from achieving their potential for growth and employment.
I intend to use next year to spread the message that entrepreneurship is not some kind of supplementary skill, which anyone can acquire. It is a professional talent in its own right, and has to be treated as such. And this requires us to ask fundamental questions about the in-built prejudices in sections of our societies, and even more about the structure of our education systems.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your discussions will contribute to enrich our future strategy and policies. In my view we should work towards five big priorities.
Firstly, to promote an economic climate for small and craft businesses by creating a favourable environment.
Secondly, to promote the development of a European "small business culture".
Thirdly, to ensure that the specific nature of crafts and small businesses is taken into account from the very conception of measures and national and community policies in the economic and social field. This has to be controlled, specifically, with reference to consultations and negotiations. And this has to be done at all levels.
Fourthly, encourage crafts and small businesses and their representatives to participate in the exchange process and the intercommunity cooperation as well as with third countries.
Fifthly, to increase competitivity and innovation of small and crafts businesses.
I would like to assure you, that the Commission will support your work both here and in the future. And I am happy to say that we will be able to put this into effect almost immediately.
The Commission will do all it can to bring to the attention of the Heads of State and Government that crafts and small enterprises hold the key to solving the unemployment crisis that they are discussing today and tomorrow in Luxembourg.
It is no longer a matter of having to justify support for this sector. It is one that no one can afford to ignore.
1998 will be another year when we will be required to take more initiatives and be more dynamic to ensure that the momentum we have created is not lost. I am committed to succeeding in that challenge and I am counting on your assistance to meet it.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I now declare this Conference open.
I am sure you will have a constructive debate with successful results.