SMEs are the backbone of our economy and account for two thirds of total employment in the non-financial sectors.
The coronavirus crisis and its fallout has hit SMEs hard and thus the SME Strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe proposed by the European Commission before the pandemic needs to be looked at in a new light, crucial for a sustainable recovery that has SMEs centre-stage.
Last March, the Commission for Economic Affairs (ECON) in the European Committee of the Regions appointed EPP-CoR member Eddy van Hijum, as Rapporteur.
He is a member of the Provincial Executive of the Province of Overijssel.
Van Hijum believes that the transition to a sustainable and digital economy cannot take place without the commitment of the entrepreneurs and business families and has thus emphasised the need to listen to their views and those on the frontline with entrepreneurs.
Notwithstanding limitations set by the pandemic, van Hijum and his team, including expert Ilse Matser from Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, have been meeting with stakeholders in The Netherlands and online with various stakeholders including European representation groups and organizational partners such as Eurochambres, SME United, Digital SME Alliance, and SME Europe, an EPP sister organization.
Consultations were of course held too with the relevant units within DG GROW itself.
van Hijum has been also conducting on-site, physical but also virtual visits to SMEs in his region via online platforms to understand the challenges they are facing because of the pandemic to ensure that the SME strategy includes measures that support their recovery.
Reacting to the relevance of the strategy in these challenging times for SMEs van Hijum said “New working methods during the pandemic have proved how more urgent it is and crucial to help SMEs pursue a digital transition and to thrive online for their survival and for Europe’s overall strategic competitiveness.” To boost digital skills, the opinion has proposed further training not just for workers but also for those in management positions and access to life-long learning programmes.
In a nutshell, Rapporteur van Hijum wants more variety in financing – including equity support, empowering Network of Regional Hubs (RegHubs) to help SMEs digitalise and become more sustainable, invest in regional development and infrastructure through SME-friendly tenders, oppose unfair competition from third countries and enable a level playing field for SMEs in trade agreements.
On financing, he stresses and in a point consistently raised by stakeholders, that the goal of making businesses more financially stable and resilient should remain a top priority for policy makers at all levels and warns against the excessive reliance of proposed SME support measures on debt instruments. It cannot be business as usual!
Mr van Hijum calls for more consideration to be given to the diversity of SMEs. His opinion is grounded in the philosophy that SMEs have strong ties in their communities and regions and can thus serve as ambassadors for the sustainability transition collaborating with local and regional authorities.
In terms of sustainability, van Hijum’s draft opinion advises that a reduction in energy consumption, embracing a circular production process needs to be shaped to avoid transferring a disproportionate share of the costs associated with the sustainability transition. The opinion also stresses that SMEs should not be exposed to unfair competition from third countries with lower environmental standards.
Referring to the Think Small First principle, the opinion also recommends a marked reduction in red tape and improving market access to stimulate innovation. In his opinion, van Hijum also honed in on late payments to SMEs by big corporations and governments.
The opinion, which will be voted during the next ECON meeting taking place on 23 June, calls upon the Commission to give regional authorities access to European funding under the Recovery Package, in order to kick-start the economic recovery. “It is local and regional authorities that are in the best position to assess the needs of SMEs adjusting to a post-pandemic economy” concluded van Hijum.