London, 6 April 1998
Lord Simon, Ministers, Honourable Guests,
It is a pleasure for me to be here with you and to participate in this Conference. And, I am very pleased to see that the Presidency and the Commission have set the same priorities.
The challenge facing us, as we move into the twenty-first century, is not only about maintaining our economies at a level, which will enable us to satisfy the ambitions and expectations of our citizens.
It is also about how we do that, in a way compatible with our desire for a fair and just society. A society where solidarity, tolerance, individual aspiration and achievement are recognised both as rights and basic values.
I believe that we, in Europe, have the experience, the capacity and the energy to meet that challenge by building on what is good in our own societies, and by learning from what is good in others.
Entrepreneurs create wealth and job opportunities. But, to do this effectively requires entrepreneurial skills. It requires the creation of an enterprise culture and the right kind of education and training. It requires an element of risk taking. And, it needs to have the right kind of business environment in which to flourish. These are some of the issues dealt with in the Communication on entrepreneurship which I have proposed.
I will be very interested to hear later from our American and Hong Kong speakers about their attitude to enterprise and entrepreneurship.
The challenges facing the enterprise sector today in Europe are not isolated problems, that can be dealt with by providing technical solutions. The answers lie within our own experiences.
Enterprises are at the heart of our economy and at the heart of our society.
If there was any doubt about that, the experience of restructuring heavy industry in the post-war years, and the consequences for industry-dependent cities, towns and villages across Europe is all the evidence needed.
The lesson we have learned is, that change is always with us. And, managing change is the greatest task facing public administration at all levels – European, national, regional, local.
In managing change, you should look at the constants in the overall picture. One constant in the post-war period is the remarkable stability and continuity of the enterprises which underpin our economy.
Another constant is the adaptability of our entrepreneurs. We may not be satisfied with our share of the market in the new technologies, and we can certainly do better, but we are by no means missing from the field.
We must not pretend that our enterprises are at a chronic disadvantage in comparison with their competitors. The evidence points in the other direction.
Without the dynamism and initiative of European entrepreneurs, the public management of change would have failed during these years of structural adjustment, during the shocks of the oil crises, and during the changes in the nature of the market from national to global.
Our task now is to ensure, that this constant remains as vibrant a part of our economic and social culture in the future, as it has done in the past.
We now recognise that the changes which are taking place in the regional and global economies, may make it very difficult for such enterprises to make this contribution, unless, they are given a more friendly environment.
Friendly environments cannot be imposed from the top. They must come from the willing participation of our citizens. This is the main reason why we must commit ourselves to explaining to our citizens what the real role of entrepreneurship is.
We must explain and demonstrate the importance of entrepreneurship. We must respect the efforts of those who take the risks. We must recognise that for today's entrepreneur, the labour force is as important to success as the capital input. And, both must be given attention and respect if the enterprise is to thrive.
Dialogue, and agreement in the workplace, will replace conflict. Those who do not recognise this necessity now will find in the future that their competitiveness will suffer.
The labour force is shrinking. The declining birth rate is taking care of that. Throughout Europe, the high growth areas of the economy are showing signs of labour shortage.
A flexible labour market, where there is need for a highly qualified workforce, is not a recipe for cheap labour. On the contrary, I believe that the skilled trades or artisanat as we call them in Brussels, and many service industries recognise that holding on to trained workers is part of the entrepreneur's skill.
We will shortly hear from Professor Chris Evans who is a successful exponent of both innovation and finding finance.
I am pleased that he accepted my invitation to chair the Business Environment Simplification Task Force, and that several members of that Task Force will be listening to your discussions today and tomorrow before they prepare their report to us.
The work of simplifying legislation, and the administrative environment for businesses is a major task. Most legislation was put there for good reasons. There is rarely one single piece of legislation which is intolerable to enterprises.
Usually, it is the cumulative effect of many obligations from different laws, prepared by different Ministries and administered by different Departments.
Simplification requires a cultural change in our national administrations and, yes, in the European Institutions – Commission, Council and Parliament.
The European Commission has been directly involved in the simplification effort for some years now with some success. To make it work, however, will require a special commitment from legislators.
I am pleased that our recommendation on start-ups is being taken up in several Member States by removing unnecessary administrative practices and simplifying the essential elements.
Another important issue is training. Everyone agrees on the need but not always on the method, and still less on where the finance should come from. Member States must look at this whole area. They must ask themselves if the costs of training a skilled worker are as cost effective as they would be if an economist or a lawyer was being trained.
I have asked my services to look at such issues because they are critical to competitiveness. And competitiveness is essential for sustainable employment.
I must say that we put particular emphasis on measures to promote training for entrepreneurs. A new entrepreneurial culture which we want to develop needs the support and close co-operation of the universities. It needs the development of synergy between universities, research centres and the enterprise sector.
Taxation is clearly a fundamental part of any business environment. What we need in Europe is a taxation policy which helps to stimulate business start-ups. A taxation policy which introduces innovative ideas to stimulate the concept of "business angels", and the introduction of more risk capital facilities.
Access to finance is another challenge for enterprises. It is a key factor towards the success of a business venture. Special measures in this field are worth mentioning.
In the Commission, through our Growth and Employment initiative with a budget of 420 million ECU, we are playing our part in improving access to finance.
This initiative involves: a risk capital scheme for companies in their early stages. Financial support for cross-border joint ventures between SMEs in different Member States. And, a loan guarantee scheme for small business. The proposal will hopefully be adopted by the ECOFIN Council on 21 April.
Recognising the serious difficulties in obtaining equity capital, two weeks ago we adopted a framework for an Action plan to stimulate the creation of a wider European risk capital market.
In order to be innovative, entrepreneurial small businesses should have better access to new technologies. They need to understand the importance of intellectual property protection and patents. They need to be able to access research, and to internationalise their networks of business and research partners.
Electronic commerce offers the opportunity to market products and services world-wide at low cost, and opens up new horizons to SMEs. By the year 2000, 80% of US SMEs will have access to the Internet. We must try and ensure that similar facilities are available to European enterprises.
Our Action Plan for Innovation seeks to foster an innovative culture by encouraging new forms of production, improving innovation support services, and supporting information networks.
Finally, I should say a few words about the limitations we usually put on enterprise by assuming that there is only one enterprise model.
Enterprises are created for as many reasons as there are enterprises. They are managed and run with almost as many differing objectives, and not only to maximise returns on capital.
The Co-operative movement and mutual societies are growth areas in the Union. This voluntary sector, which distributes its profits to target groups and companies, and voluntary organisations, which create foundations, and which operate as enterprises, are crucial to the solidarity and the welfare of our society.
I believe that this Conference will tackle the topics, which our own experts in the Commission have been debating with Member State experts, academics, and business people.
We have not found the single, unique way forward – nor are we likely to. I hope that I have contributed to your reflections, on what must be taken into account, when choosing the preferred way forward.
Entrepreneurship and the enterprise culture are not just additional options or accessories to our way of life. They are an integral part of it – both economically and socially.
We must give them the environment, in which they can thrive. Such an environment requires a positive approach from administrations. The recognition that capital and labour need equally attentive care. An approach to training that distributes burdens equitably, and a willingness to look beyond the stereotypes we have of the enterprise.
Above all, we need to acknowledge that entrepreneurs, from the village shopkeeper to the latest high-tech innovator, are essential to our economy, our jobs and the welfare of our society. And they merit our respect and appreciation.
I wish you a very productive Conference.