Earlier this year in March, the European Commission adopted a series of measures to boost Europe’s industry, including a dedicated SME Strategy.
This is a key policy document, one that sets out European SME policy for years to come. Its adoption came just days before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the EU with full force.
The COVID-19 crisis has taught us many things, but the importance of being digitally-savvy is certainly among the most important lessons.
The digitalisation of Europe’s SMEs has not been impressive, with only 17 percent of small and medium-sized businesses selling online.
The crisis has clearly demonstrated that businesses capable of embracing digital are more resilient and can reach wider markets.
For entrepreneurs already active in digital markets and dealing with issues like artificial intelligence or cloud services, the Coronavirus crisis has reinforced their opinion to do more.
“For entrepreneurs already active in digital markets and dealing with issues like artificial intelligence or cloud services, the Coronavirus crisis has reinforced their opinion to do more”
However, for our local bakery around the corner or the market stall where we bought our fruit and vegetables until the lockdown prevented us, they probably never thought much about it.
The need to set up delivery systems and electronically reach out to clients has now become paramount for these businesses, too.
The SME Strategy contains a number of measures to make sure that the drive towards digitalisation reaches SMEs and that they can reach out for the necessary support.
For example, we will expand our Digital Innovation Hubs in connection with the Startup Europe initiative and the Enterprise Europe Network.
We will also launch a “digital volunteers” programme to allow skilled young people and experienced seniors to share their digital competence with traditional businesses. Sustainability is the other key thread running through all future actions.
This is not unique to SME policy as all steps towards Europe’s recovery and beyond will require us to think and act sustainably.
To support SMEs in this development, the Commission will allocate at least €300m to encourage breakthrough Green Deal innovations under the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC).
We will also upgrade the Enterprise Europe Network with dedicated Sustainability Advisors and other sustainability services.
Entrepreneurial activity needs to be sustainable as a whole, producing for and servicing clients in environmentally-sustainable ways.
Equally important is social sustainability, even more so now during the post-COVID-19 recovery that has barely begun.
In addition, to help SMEs and the European economy as a whole to recover from the crisis, the Commission last week put forward a proposal for a major recovery plan.
“The SME Strategy contains a number of measures to make sure that the drive towards digitalisation reaches SMEs and that they can reach out for the necessary support”
It is embedded within a powerful, modern and revamped long-term EU budget. SMEs will be among the main beneficiaries of the support instruments – particularly through the second pillar of the recovery plan, which aims to support the economy and private investments.
The InvestEU programme will be crucial in this regard. Under the newly-proposed Strategic Investment Facility, we will focus on supporting projects relevant to achieving strategic autonomy in key value chains in the Single Market, including for SMEs playing a role in such strategic value chains.
The Competitiveness of Enterprises and SMEs (COSME) pillar of the Single Market Programme will fund the Enterprise Europe Network, the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs, the Joint Cluster Initiative and many more; all of which are key to Europe’s economic recovery.
This will provide business opportunities, help SMEs internationalise, overcome skills shortages and reinforce sustainable business ecosystems.
The importance of Europe’s SMEs for the industrial ecosystems that together make Europe’s economy can hardly be overstated; this applies to all sectors from tourism to textiles and from retail to renewables (see chart for overview).
We are grateful for the continuous support and the input we have received from key stakeholders: from the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, to business associations and companies themselves.
This strong collaboration will also be critical in implementing the SME strategy. We look forward to putting our common priorities in support of European SMEs into action and continuing the dialogue, with the next big rendezvous being at the 2020 SME Assembly in November.