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Improving the competitiveness of European SMEs and, in particular, facilitating their access to financing was the focal point of discussions at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers responsible for Cohesion Policy, which was hosted by the Ministry of Development and Competitiveness in Athens on 24-25 April under the Greek EU Presidency.Drapeaux des Etats membre de l'Union europ?enne ? 28 pays et dra

The Council discussed the need to adapt the new NSRF (2014-2020) actions with a view to meeting the needs of SMEs and their individual characteristics (development level, regional and national economic situation etc.), as well as the further utilization of financial instruments to facilitate the access of SMEs to grants, loans, loan guarantees etc.

During 2014-2020, funds for SMEs have doubled (from € 70 bn in 2007-2013 to € 140 bn) in order to boost growth and job creation.

What was also highlighted was the need to focus on innovation and its positive impact on SMEs’ productivity, the encouragement of business partnerships on a transnational level so as to enable the expansion of enterprises to new markets and the investment in human resources allowing the SMEs access to highly educated personnel.

Commissioner responsible for Regional Policy, Johannes Hahn, presented the state-of-play in the submission of Partnership Agreements by the Member States (Partnership Agreements have replaced the NSRF, for the programming period 2014-2020) and the operational programmes. According to the latest data, 27 out of 28 official partnership agreements have already been submitted.

One of the topics on the agenda was Urban Development, in keeping with the conclusions of the conference on the “Cities of Tomorrow”,Investing in Europe – organized by the European Commission in February 2014, in Brussels. Smart, sustainable and inclusive growth: EU Capital Cities – essential partners for Europe 2020

Europe 2020 strategy sets realistic but ambitious targets to return Europe to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The new EU budget seeks to enhance competitiveness through greater focus on research, innovation and infrastructure, with special attention given to connect Europe in transport, energy and digital sectors, which built on the climate and energy goals for 2020 that were agreed under the previous Commission to set out a framework for 2030. Competitiveness, sustainability and security of supply are at the core of EU:s climate and energy policies.

Capital cities play a crucial role in the well-being of the EU and its Member States. Europe’s capital cities are not only a major part of the EU’s image abroad, its cultural identity and attractiveness, but powerful motors for competitiveness, employment and innovation. At the same time they have a concentration of Europe’s problems, including increasing social and economic disparities. Capital cities are the laboratories where solutions to the EU’s social and economic problems must be found.

At this important juncture, the EU’s biggest challenge is to foster growth, competitiveness and jobs and to ensure stability and prosperity for all; for this the EU has to reaffirm its mission at the hearts and minds of its citizens. In 2012 Commission President José Manuel Barroso decided to make urban policy (Shaping an EU Urban Agenda for Cities of Tomorrow) the responsibility of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy under the supervision of Commissioner Hahn. This was in recognition that the EU needed a more “joined up” approach to urban policy and that Europe’s cities are vital to address global challenges and implement the EU’s 2020 Growth Agenda.

Pierluigi Gilibert, Chief Executive of the European Investment Fund, Jeffrey Anderson, Senior Director for European Affairs and Peter Faross, Secretary General of the European Craft and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME), presented their views on the subject in the course the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers.

Given that the majority of the population in Europe, as well as internationally, resides in urban areas and that more than 50% of Cohesion Funds will be distributed to urban areas, the discussion centred on:

-Better allocation of funds in order to tackle problems arising from urban development (environmental pollution, poverty, social exclusion etc)
-Better cooperation among EU, national and local governments, with a view to addressing urban challenges.
-The prospects for formulating a European Agenda on Urban Development.

Development and Competitiveness Minister, Kostas Hatzidakis, noted “the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers responsible for Cohesion Policy coincides with the beginning of the New Programming Period 2014-2020; it also comes at a time when the economies of the countries severely hit by the crisis are at a turning point on the way to recovery. The adoption of financing programmes for SMEs, tailored to the needs of each country’s economy, especially for those countries that have been affected by the crisis, should be allowed.

It is inconceivable, especially now, to ignore the unique problems faced by SMEs in these countries. Where necessary, we should be prepared to make the changes required in the application of competition rules so as not to further undermine the position of enterprises of weaker countries, to support innovative and outward-looking entrepreneurial ventures with flexible financial products, as well as to maximize the efficiency of community funds.