IRDAC,Plenary Meeting, Brussels, March 19, 1998
Ladies and gentlemen
it is a great pleasure for me to participate in this plenary meeting of the Industrial Research and Development Advisory Committee. I welcome this opportunity to present to you the main lines of the Commission's efforts to promote entrepreneurship, and to enhance the access of SMEs to Community programmes.
The biggest challenge that Europe faces today is its 18 million unemployed. One of the most efficient ways to create new jobs is to foster entrepreneurship, a fact that was recognised at the Luxembourg Summit last November. Developing entrepreneurship is one of the four pillars of the Employment Guidelines, which will form the basis of a co-ordinated strategy for employment policies.
Entrepreneurship accelerates structural change and contributes to the development of new markets, products and services, thereby strengthening competitiveness, economic growth and, finally, job creation.
Europe needs to create a new enterprise culture that is quick to grasp new opportunities, and to satisfy the needs of emerging demands for new products and services.
In this direction, a number of measures have to be taken on both Community and national levels. For this purpose we will discuss in the Commission a Communication on Entrepreneurship.
Fostering a culture of entrepreneurship includes measures that encourage individuals to start-up businesses and equip them with the necessary skills to make their business successful. We put particular emphasis on measures to promote training for entrepreneurs. A new enterpreneurial culture which we want to develop needs the support and close cooperation of the universities.
By encouraging entrepreneurship, we aim at creating a business environment that makes it easier to start-up and run businesses and helps to reduce the number of business failures.
In recent years we have taken several initiatives and have asked the governments of the Member states to simplify the regulatory and administrative environment for businesses.
To the same effect I have set up a Task force for the Business Environment Simplification which among other issues will address the administrative environment in the Research and Technology sector.
Inter-enterprises collaboration should become more effective to meet the challenge of newly emerging markets, and improve business opportunities for all enterprises. Cooperative support measures to promote industrial subcontracting at European and International level would help to take advantage of such opportunities.
The issue of access to finance is another challenge for enterprises. Setting-up working capital as well as ensuring the capital base for the creation of new enterprises are other familiar problems.
Special measures in this field are worth mentioning. We have recently approved a proposal to the Council on a financial package, which aims at unlocking the job potential of fast growing, innovative enterprises.
As you know the European Investment Bank (EIB) is already one of the largest providers of credit for enterprises in Europe, thus playing a very valuable role. And, the decisions taken at the Luxembourg Summit will strengthen the Bank's financing potential even further.
In the Commission we have decided to create a fund to help SMEs inside the Union to set up transnational joint ventures. It is known as "Joint European Ventures" or 'JEV'. We took this decision because, despite the opportunities offered by the Single Market, many small businesses are still facing difficulties selling their products into other Member States.
Starting to export products or investing in other Member States is a considerable business undertaking, and banks are usually reluctant to give loans for such operations. This programme will help firms to penetrate other European markets, by giving them the financial resources to do so.
Another way to help enterprises find financial resources is through capital markets, although European entrepreneurs often do not welcome external shareholders. We have encouraged the creation of EASDAQ, a capital market at European level, especially designed for fast-growing companies, particularly high technology companies, with international aspirations.
The new programming period supported by structural funds will be an opportune moment to implement the priority guidelines for Member States programmes proposed by the Commission, one of which would be enterprise development.
It is obvious there should be increased support from the structural funds to help SMEs gain access to technology, innovation and training, which we believe are crucial for the competitiveness of these enterprises.
For training, it is essential to improve management skills. Emphasis will be put on a demand-led approach, targeted on the needs expressed by business managers.This will be done by identifying and stimulating a network of business schools, and to facilitate their networking with clusters of enterprises.
Another action is being launched and will focus on the best techniques and methods for management training, using Information and Communication Technologies.
This brings me to the use of electronic commerce and distance selling. We have given priority to the introduction of this service to SMEs, and will implement an action plan to this end during the course of this year.
Strengthening SME access to technology, and especially to European Research and Development programmes, is a fundamental objective of the Commission. The ability of SMEs to master technology and to become more innovative is certainly a major condition for improving their competitiveness.
In rapidly evolving fields such as information technology, biotechnology, health, and the environment, there is a huge demand for new products and services on a world-wide level.
To seize these opportunities and remain competitive, SMEs need to develop and strengthen the necessary technological skills as well as internationalise their activities and embark on collaborative schemes with new partners.
SME participation in European Research and Technology Development programmes helps them to meet these requirements. Indeed, through their access to Research & Technology programmes, they can at the same time internationalise their networks of business and research partners while improving their technological base.
Special initiatives such as the Technology Stimulation Measures for SMEs - the so-called "Craft" and "exploratory" awards - have so far proven to be excellent instruments. Of course, they need to be continued and strengthened in the new Framework Programme.
The proposal for a Fifth Framework Programme emphasises that research in the European Union will be defined not only by scientific and technological factors, but also by the economic and social needs of the Union and its overall competitiveness.
I can only welcome this trend, as it will allow the Commission to embark on a bottom-up approach, more suitable for small businesses.
I am convinced that an integrated effort must be made by everyone in the Commission concerned with the necessity to improve the appropriate answer to SME needs in RTD programmes.
This political will should be realised through specific measures in the Fifth Framework Programme. Measures, that allow a closer synergy between the partnership instruments and co-operation networks of enterprise policy and, the specific activities of the RTD programmes.
Establishing a closer and efficient collaboration between Research and Technology Development and enterprises is crucial to improve their innovative capacity.
We already started to stimulate the creation and development of SME clusters linked to research institutions, universities and science parks, through a bottom-up approach based on our co-operation instruments. Realised at European level, this scheme should enable SMEs to find partners, exchange best practices and collaborate in making applications to RTD programmes.
To conclude, I would like to stress the importance that I attach to the preparation of the Fifth Framework Programme, especially its management aspect.
As you know, a management group has been set up that involves both General Directorates responsible for research and Entreprise policy.
By bringing our experience together, we will be able to design a structure, which will consolidate and reinforce SME participation in the Community Programmes, and in the RTD programmes in particular.
Thank you for your attention.