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Mr Erkki Liikanen

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Enterprise and the Information Society

"The future of European business support networks"

Euro Info Centres (EIC) Conference

Brussels, 8 November 2001

I am pleased to be addressing this conference. The fact that so many of you are here is a very promising sign for the future relations between professional and representative organisations and the European Commission

We should continue to work towards establishing a better partnership with all of you who are active at the local level in our common effort to serve the changing needs of companies.

Enterprise Policy of the European Commission

Companies today have to adapt quickly to new circumstances and opportunities, such as technological innovations, globalisation, new ways of organising themselves, new working methods, demands for more ethical approaches, etc.

The European Union has set very high standards of performance for companies and for itself: the Summit of Lisbon in March 2000 set a new strategic goal for the next decade, to turn Europe into the most dynamic knowledge-based economy within a decade.

Enterprise and entrepreneurship are pivotal to achieve what President Prodi referred at the time to as "Enterprise Europe" by 2005.

This was one year and a half ago. This was the time of an economy at peak and of the boom. Now, we are in an economic slow-down. This slow-down has even been accelerated by the events of September 11.

Does this mean that this is all over? That Lisbon strategy is dead? No, we need more than ever to focus on competitiveness. Entrepreneurship and innovation policies are part of this.

The European Commission has, therefore, concentrated its enterprise policy on three major axes:

  • Encourage risk-taking and the spirit of enterprise: A recent Eurobarometer had put the question: "Do you prefer to be self-employed or to be an employee?". In the EU in general, the replies were 50%-50%. Compared to the US where more than 70% of the people wanted to become an entrepreneur. But in Europe, there is a clear South-North difference. In Greece and Spain for example, we reach the same figures as in the US. In the Northern countries, a clear majority (up to 70%) prefers to be an employee. Another question referred to if you agree or disagree with the statement on "one should not start a business if there is a risk it might fail". In the EU, again about 50 % agrees. In the US, nearly 75 % disagrees. We need to facilitate the conditions under which entrepreneurs can start and develop their business, such as easier access to finance, etc.

  • Building a dynamic enterprise environment, based on innovation and the ability to respond to change. European companies need the right regulatory, administrative and fiscal framework.

  • Ensure effective access to the internal market. There are still far too many obstacles and costs, which remain to be removed. We have launched a couple of months ago an "Internal Market Initiative". A questionnaire on four areas, intracommunity commerce, external commerce, e-commerce and use of ICT had been sent to all stakeholders. We expect first results now in November.

Enterprise policy must respond in particular to the needs of Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are the rule, not the exception. Small enterprises must be considered as the main driver for innovation, employment as well as social and local integration in Europe.

Small companies, especially those with less than 10 employees, are more hesitant than large companies concerning the use of e-commerce. Even if they recognise the benefits of new business models, they often lack the required financial and human resources.

The Commission has therefor launched this year the initiative "Helping SMEs to Go Digital". Go Digital is aimed at specific needs of SMEs in electronic commerce: to promote awareness, to enhance Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills in SMEs and to benchmark national policies in support of SMEs.

A number of activities already took place and will take place in different Member States, eg in Germany in January together with the Federation of handicrafts (ZDH).

I am calling for your support in our activities to promote the use of the new technologies. You as representatives of businesses are best placed to promote these technologies. I strongly appreciate the work already done by EICs in this field and the "Go Digital" campaign that is currently taking place.

Defining a new relationship with professional organisations

Your support has to be seen in the context of the Commission's objective to involve professional organisations stronger than in the past. The overall architecture of this relationship is being defined under the project on Governance.

The Governance project aims to establish a strong and constructive dialogue with professional organisations and representatives of companies. The White Paper on Governance states that "The communication policy of the Commission and the others Institutions will promote efforts to deliver information at the national and local levels, where possible making uses of networks, grassroots organisations, etc."

It also calls for "a more systematic dialogue with European and national associations" to be established.

The will to work with the representative organisations of enterprises towards shared objectives is a common thread that runs through all recent initiatives: for instance, the need for the full use of partnerships at all levels, is re-affirmed in the communication policy of the European Union.

Let me put forward a very concrete example .By creating the professional chamber of the Enterprise Policy Group, the Commission took a significant step towards integrating the points of view of companies into the decision-making processes at the European level.

The Professional Chamber made up of representatives of different companies and trade unions- is the best way to test our initiatives. Its active advice allows the Commission to define and to validate its enterprise policy initiatives.

In this context, organisations which already accommodate Community networks, the host structures, are pioneers in this type of relationship and in this way of working with the Commission.

For more than 10 years the EIC host structures have acted as points of interaction between companies and European policies.

This active involvement in the construction of Europe represents a remarkable effort which we in the Commission fully appreciate. We count on this continuing involvement to provide increased support for European companies.

Making life easier for companies

The Commission wants to make things simpler and easier for European companies. This is absolutely necessary, because to be a success as a company is becoming increasingly complex.

The special attention the Commission gives to the needs of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises is also reflected in the Multiannual Programme for Enterprises and Entrepreneurship.

The Commission has adopted its Multiannual Programme for Enterprises and Entrepreneurship last December (2001-2005). Main focus are the business support networks and access to finance.

The best environment for small companies depends strongly on the provision of high quality business support services. Simplicity, clearness, speed, quality and relevance are the main requirements of the services which we must offer to companies.

Business decisions have to be taken quickly and clearly stated. They have to concentrate on business strategy and operations,.

Hence the Commission decided to promote together with you - a coherent system of business support services. A system that can be readily understood by companies and readily accessed by them. This corresponds exactly with the definition of top class business support services.

Likewise, the Multiannual Programme for enterprise and entrepreneurship reflects the need for more coherence in its actions. One of the five objectives is "to give easier access to Community support services, programmes and networks and to improve the co-ordination of these facilities".

Business support networks are important and successful!

Business support networks play an extremely important role in helping companies to improve their performance.

  • They are staffed by highly experienced people.

  • They operate very close to their clients, so they know the real needs of companies.

  • They are in most cases linked to several business development actors, most importantly to professional organisations such as your own that act as hosts.

  • They are large networks linked via the European Commission.

This is why today EU business support networks have become firmly established in the business community and are highly appreciated by companies.

The Commission also needs business support networks: their feedback helps us to understand which policies work and which activities should be adapted or re-considered.

Euro Info Centres

Euro Info Centres are one of the best examples of a successful and effective network. Euro Info Centres are the largest EU support network for businesses with around 300 Centres in 37 countries across Europe, the accession countries and third countries. All the assets of Community business support networks apply in particular to EICs, namely: Proximity, Expertise, Professionalism, Networking, People.

One of the main advantages of EICs is their effective use of the network effect (300 contact points), which has led to remarkable achievements.

  • They have prepared a large number of companies for the changeover to the Euro, one of the biggest projects in history of the European Union.

  • They prepare companies in the field of e-commerce and presently run an ambitious and important "e-business" campaign which is part of the Go Digital initiative.

  • Their role as brokers in business co-operation and b2b matching has increased significantly over the years.

  • EICs are a step ahead in the enlargement process. With more than 50 EICs in the Central and East European Countries they are strongly represented and can provide already business opportunities and advice across Europe.

We will see later at this conference some more impressive, very practical, examples of the work EICs have carried out.

All these achievements are the result of a highly successful joint venture that includes professional organisations at local, regional and national level represented by you today - and the European Commission.

We acknowledge strongly the professionalism of EIC managers and EIC staff and their dedication to help companies in seizing the opportunities of the single market. We also appreciate the continuous commitment professional organisations and institutions have shown over many years to make this network what it is today: a high quality network that serves in the best interest of businesses.

Streamlining initiative

Beginning this year, the Commission has taken the initiative to assess how the work of business support networks can be further strengthened. The Communication on the Rationalisation and Streamlining of Community business support networks sets out the main principles that we must follow and the objectives to be reached.

Strengthening European business support networks requires to look at the problems created by the lack of coherence and complementarity as between the various networks which have been established with the support of the Commission.

For instance the Euro Info Centres, Innovation Relay Centres, Business and Innovation Centres, Organisations for the Promotion of Energy Technologies, EUROCENTRES in Latin America, European Business Information Centres in Asia, and the former Networks in charge of business co-operation. All these are concerned by this initiative.

They were created to serve different European programmes and policies. We see, however, that companies still find it difficult to understand the different nature of the various networks and consequently who to ask for advice. This leads to a "patchwork image" of European business support at local and regional level.

The task is therefore to facilitate the access of companies to these networks. We can do this if we bring more coherence and transparency to the networks. More coherence means:

  • A company should be able to access the network of business support through any entry point, and can be assured it will arrive either directly at the right contact point,

  • Coherence means also that Community business support networks are not competing with each other. They all have specific tasks and missions that add up to a comprehensive range of services for companies. We need to enhance the synergies between the various networks and avoid unnecessary overlaps and duplication of work.

This initiative is ambitious and complex. It addresses many issues and it concerns many organisations. Because of the importance and complexity, our objective is to proceed seriously and carefully. Adequate time is, therefore, required until a blueprint can be developed and implemented.

As the initiative and the blue print resulting out of this must meet the needs of companies, we have involved all stakeholders from the beginning.

During this year 2001, Commission officials in charge of the EIC network have visited host structures in 26 countries and discussed the initiative with you. Managers of all networks concerned have been consulted and invited to meetings so that we can benefit from all their experience. This Conference is a major step that allows the Commission to hear what you have to say and take it into account.

The results of the consultations show general support for our initiative and encourage us to move on. We have been reminded that any new structure must build on what has been achieved so far. This is acknowledged and shared by the Commission.

The real value of the present and therefore any new system, lies in the combination of people a human network and technology that is used to improve communication and knowledge among and between networks.

2002 will be important because we need to implement several tools to enhance co-operation and bring networks closer together. For example,

  • Establish a common e-platform for all business networks including a conferencing system and a common web site as well as tools to increase the knowledge of each other's activities.

  • In addition, we must find effective ways to promote the new relationship.

The remarkable work carried out by networks such as the EICs is not questioned. Indeed, it must be further supported and strengthened. The same applies to the range of services covered by EICs. The next EIC Conference in Oulu/Finland in June 2002 will undoubtedly address these issues and contribute further to the debate.

The final system will be the result of further, intensive consultations with all stakeholders. The structure will be defined by the market, by the client who is the centre of our work, the company, and in particular the SME. We know already that it will be based on the objective of bringing more coherence and transparency in a system where all the various services provided at present add up in a coherent manner.

What is needed is to move forward in a process that is unavoidable if we want to improve our policies and react to the messages that we receive from businesses. We need strong personal commitment to make this initiative a success.

I am personally looking forward to the results of this important conference, to hear your views, and to move forward with this important initiative.

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