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Last Thursday, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the content of a European "Small Business Act." Its reported objective is to put small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at the forefront of decision making in the EU and to introduce concrete measures to unlock the SMEs' growth potential. It will include new initiatives to reduce regulatory burden on SMEs, facilitate access to single market/public procurement, help provide necessary financial/human resources for SME development and help SMEs face the challenge of globalization and climate change.
The preparation of a Small Business Act for Europe is one of the key measures announced in the commission's package for the next cycle of the growth and jobs strategy adopted last December. The consultation will be open until the end of March. A public hearing on the Small Business Act will take place Wednesday in Brussels.
Commenting on the launch of the public consultation, European Commission Vice President GÃ¼nter Verheugen, who is responsible for enterprise and industry policy, said: "The crucial role of SMEs and entrepreneurs for Europe's competitiveness has now been well recognized. With the Small Business Act we aim at fully unlocking this immense potential. But for this we need to know about all the problems to solve, all the opportunities to seize. Every opinion matters and I call on everyone to contribute."
The document underpinning the consultation identified six areas to be examined, but other areas can emerge from the public consultation:
â€¢ Better regulation for the benefit of SMEs;
â€¢ Putting SMEs at the forefront of society;
â€¢ SMEs' access to markets;
â€¢ SMEs' access to finance, skills and innovation;
â€¢ Turning the environmental challenge into opportunities for SMEs;
â€¢ Enhancing the implementation of EU SME policy principles.
The importance of small- and medium-sized enterprises for the EU economy is well recognized by the European Commission; a comprehensive EU SME policy was put in place in 2005 as an integral part of the Lisbon Partnership for Growth and Jobs. An assessment of the SME policy results from 2005-2007 indicated that substantial progress has been made both at EU and national level with the implementation of the "think small first" principle.
The commission is said to have made real efforts to cut red tape for SMEs; it claims to have significantly increased the SME focus within major EU spending programs for the period 2007-2013. Member states announced they have substantially improved the SMEs' environment and progressed in their implementation of the 2006 Spring European Council conclusions, e.g. by introducing one-stop shops for company registration and reducing the time and costs required to do so.
Despite these significant improvements, in its communication to last October's meeting of heads of state and government, the commission underlined the need to fully unlock the growth and jobs potential of SMEs and make full use of their innovative capacities. This was reflected in the strategic report on the renewed Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs on December 11, which substantially increases the emphasis on SMEs in the context of the next Lisbon cycle for 2008-2010.
As a major contribution to this objective, the commission proposed the preparation of a Small Business Act for Europe, whose main aim will be to set principles and concrete measures to improve the framework conditions for European SMEs, while taking full account of their diversity. This initiative was welcomed by the European Council in December, and the commission's objective is to come up with a proposal by June.
While the commission has already identified a number of problems that prevent SMEs from fully unlocking their potential when launching its "Modern SME Policy," the aim of this consultation is to stimulate an open debate with all stakeholders on developing the Small Business Act for Europe to ensure that all remaining obstacles to EU SMEs' prosperity, and solutions to tackle them, are identified.
The results of Wednesday's public hearing in Brussels with the main stakeholders could provide a major contribution to the commission's own reflections leading up to the development of the Small Business Act.
Ari Syrquin heads the Joseph Shem-Tov Law Firm's international department.
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