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Tuesday, 13 September 2016 - Strasbourg Final edition
Enhancing the competitiveness of SMEs

European Parliament resolution of 13 September 2016 on implementation of the thematic objective ‘enhancing the competitiveness of SMEs’ – Article 9(3) of the Common Provisions Regulation (2015/2282(INI))

The European Parliament,

–  having regard to Common Provisions Regulation (EU) No 1303/2013, Article 9(3) on the thematic objective of enhancing the competitiveness of SMEs,

–  having regard to Common Provisions Regulation (EU) No 1303/2013, Article 37 on financial instruments supported by ESI Funds,

–  having regard to its position of 15 April 2014 on the proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and of the Council on the participation of the Union in a Research and Development Programme jointly undertaken by several Member States aimed at supporting research performing small and medium-sized enterprises(1),

–  having regard to its resolution of 5 February 2013 on improving access to finance for SMEs(2),

–  having regard to Directive 2011/7/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 February 2011 on combating late payment in commercial transactions,

–  having regard to its resolution of 19 May 2015 on green growth opportunities for SMEs(3),

–  having regard to the COSME programme for small and medium-sized enterprises,

–  having regard to the Eurobarometer survey on SMEs, resource efficiency and green markets (Flash Eurobarometer 381), and the Eurobarometer survey on the role of public support in the commercialisation of innovations (Flash Barometer 394),

–  having regard to its resolution of 4 December 2008 on steps towards improving the environment for SMEs in Europe – Small Business Act(4),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 25 June 2008 entitled ‘‘Think Small First’ – A ‘Small Business Act’ for Europe’ (COM(2008)0394),

–  having regard to the European Charter for Small Enterprises, adopted by the European Council at its meeting in Feira on 19 and 20 June 2000,

–  having regard to its resolution of 16 February 2011 on practical aspects regarding the revision of EU instruments to support SME finance in the next programming period(5),

–  having regard to its resolution of 23 October 2012 on Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs): competitiveness and business opportunities(6),

–  having regard to its resolution of 14 January 2014 on smart specialisation: networking excellence for a sound Cohesion Policy(7),

–  having regard to its resolution of 9 September 2015 on ‘Investment for jobs and growth: promoting economic, social and territorial cohesion in the Union’(8),

–  having regard to Commission Recommendation 2003/361/EC of 6 May 2003 concerning the definition of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)(9),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 10 June 2014 entitled ‘Research and innovation as sources of renewed growth’ (COM(2014)0339),

–  having regard to the Commission’s sixth report on economic, social and territorial cohesion of 23 July 2014, entitled ‘Investment for jobs and growth’,

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 26 November 2014 entitled ‘An Investment Plan for Europe’ (COM(2014)0903),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 14 October 2011 entitled ‘Industrial Policy: Reinforcing Competitiveness’ (COM(2011)0642),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 9 November 2011 entitled ‘Small Business, Big World – a new partnership to help SMEs seize global opportunities’ (COM(2011)0702),

–  having regard to the Commission Report of 23 November 2011 entitled ‘Minimising regulatory burden for SMEs – Adapting EU regulation to the needs of micro-enterprises’ (COM(2011)0803),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 23 February 2011 entitled ‘Review of the ‘Small Business Act’ for Europe’ (COM(2011)0078),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 6 October 2010 entitled ‘Regional Policy contributing to smart growth in Europe 2020’ (COM(2010)0553),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 3 March 2010 entitled ‘Europe 2020 – A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ (COM(2010)2020),

–  having regard to the Commission Communication of 14 December 2015 entitled ‘Investing in jobs and growth – maximising the contribution of European Structural and Investment Funds’ (COM(2015)0639),

–  having regard to the Opinion of the Committee of the Regions of 30 May 2013 entitled ‘Closing the Innovation Divide’(10),

–  having regard to the Opinion of the Committee of the Regions of 7 October 2014 entitled ‘Measures to support the creation of high-tech start-up ecosystems’(11),

–  having regard to Rule 52 of its Rules of Procedure,

–  having regard to the report of the Committee on Regional Development (A8-0162/2016),

A.  whereas cohesion policy represents the main tool for investment in growth and jobs in the EU, with a budget of over EUR 350 billion until 2020; whereas the tangible results of cohesion policy investment can help shape the current and future growth of regions within Member States;

B.  whereas, as a consequence of the economic and financial crisis, levels of poverty and social exclusion have increased in many Member States, as have long-term unemployment, youth unemployment and social inequalities, and SMEs can therefore play a relevant and important role in Europe’s recovery;

C.  whereas the 23 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the EU, which account for around 99 % of all businesses, make a fundamental contribution to economic growth, social cohesion, innovation and high-quality job creation, providing over 100 million jobs which generate 2 out of every 3 private sector jobs, and maintaining double the employment growth rate of larger enterprises; whereas only 13 % of European SMEs are engaged in commercial activities and investments in the global markets;

D.  whereas European SMEs are very diverse and include a vast number of microenterprises based at local level, which often operate in traditional sectors, and a growing number of new start-ups and fast-growing innovative enterprises, as well as social economy enterprises focused on specific targets and groups; whereas these business models have different problems and, therefore, different needs; whereas the simplification of European, national and regional legislation is pivotal in facilitating access to credit for SMEs;

E.  whereas SMEs are highly adaptable to change and well able to keep step with technological progress;

F.  whereas microcredit, which mostly targets microentrepreneurs and disadvantaged people who wish to enter into self-employment, is pivotal in overcoming obstacles in accessing traditional banking services and whereas JASMINE (Joint Action to Support Microfinance Institutions) and the Microfinance and Social Entrepreneurship axis of EaSI can provide valid support for improving access to finance, including for social enterprises;

G.  whereas Cohesion Policy in the 2007-2013 programming period provided EUR 70 billion of support to SMEs, creating more than 263 000 SME jobs, and helped SMEs modernise through increased use of ICT, access skills, innovation or the modernisation of working practices;

H.  whereas Cohesion Policy in the 2014-2020 programming period will further support SMEs by doubling the 2007-2013 support to EUR 140 billion;

I.  whereas the thematic objective entitled ‘enhancing the competitiveness of SMEs’ (TO 3) is one of the thematic objectives with the highest percentage of overall funding (13,9 %) and is of primary importance in order to achieve the objectives of cohesion policy and the Europe 2020 strategy;

J.  whereas the SMEs which would be eligible for ESI Funds, in that they operate in a competitive environment and have to deal with a wide range of constraints, including cash-flow constraints, are being hit particularly hard by the complexity and instability of the rules and by the red tape involved, in particular the fact that the administrative costs are out of all proportion to the funding allocated, the time taken to process funding applications and the need to advance funds;

K.  whereas the introduction of thematic concentration into cohesion policy programming for 2014-2020 provided an effective tool for the design of operational programmes with a better focus on investment priorities in order to have sufficient resources to make real impacts;

L.  whereas the partnership agreements and operational programmes provided for in Articles 14, 16 and 29 of the Common Provisions Regulation are strategic tools to guide investments in Member States and regions;

M.  whereas SMEs will ensure that industrial production represents a share of at least 20 % of Member States’ GDP by 2020;

N.  whereas only a small percentage of European SMEs are currently able to identify and exploit the opportunities offered by international trade, trade agreements and the global value chains, and only 13 % of European SMEs have been active at international level outside the EU over the past three years;

O.  whereas the process of internationalisation of SMEs should rely on corporate social responsibility, on respect for human and workers’ rights and on the highest possible protection of the environment, in order to ensure fair competition and an increase in quality jobs;

1.  Notes that, through thematic concentration, operational programmes have been better targeted towards a limited number of strategic goals, in particular in terms of growth enhancement and high-quality job creation potential for SMEs, including microenterprises; considers that SMEs are the driving forces behind the European economy and are key to the success of Cohesion Policy, but that they often face multiple challenges owing to their size; recommends, therefore, further enhancing the support from ESI Funds directed towards SMEs;

2.  Calls on the Commission and the Member States to take into account the added value of SME projects for the development and innovation of traditional sectors, as this will not only stimulate job creation, but also maintain local and regional business specificities, whilst respecting the principles of sustainability; highlights the need to also take into account the context of such sectors and to not disrupt the delicate balance between traditional knowledge-based production techniques and innovation; points out that SMEs play an important role in the services sector, which is undergoing a significant change as a result of digitalisation, and considers, therefore, that the skills gap with regard to ICT skills should be dealt with by placing more emphasis on relevant training and education;

3.  Highlights that there is an overall need for mechanisms that help to simplify the business environment and speed up the process of setting up new businesses with REFIT to support SME competitiveness and absorption of ESI Funds; stresses also the need for fulfilment of ex ante conditionalities;

4.  Asks the Commission to take into consideration the principles of the circular economy package in the implementation of TO 3, in order to foster more sustainable economic growth and generate new high-quality jobs for SMEs, with special attention being paid to promoting green jobs; believes, in this respect, that it is important to continue efforts to promote the green competitiveness of SMEs by improving access to finance, providing more information, simplifying legislation, cutting red tape, promoting e-cohesion and strengthening a green business culture; points out, moreover, that a greener value chain, which involves remanufacturing, repair, maintenance, recycling and eco-design, could provide considerable business opportunities for many SMEs, provided that economic behaviour changes and that legislative, institutional and technical barriers are removed or reduced;

5.  Points out that the problems being experienced by SMEs are partly caused by the fact that the austerity policies implemented by Member States have stifled demand;

6.  Encourages the Member States and regional authorities to consider the use of the financial instrument opportunities; emphasises the need to ensure the transparency, accountability and scrutiny of such financial instruments and of the SME Initiative Programme aimed at financially supporting SMEs; highlights that financial instruments should always be used consistently with the goals of cohesion policy, and that proper technical and administrative support should be provided;

7.  Calls for simplified and less regulated access to credit, taking into account the particular characteristics of microenterprises and start-ups and the regions in which they operate; regrets that investors and banks are often reluctant to finance businesses in their start-up and early expansion phases and that many SMEs, especially small start-ups, have found it hard to gain access to external funding; asks the Commission, the Member States and regional authorities, therefore, to pay particular attention to improving access to finance for microenterprises and start-ups that want to scale-up; points out the need to equalise interest rates for financing of SMEs with interest rates for larger companies;

8.  Considers that European small businesses tend to lean on financing sources such as banks, and are not fully aware of the existence of additional funding sources, or of their financial options; notes that the Commission, taking into account the fragmentation of the markets, has proposed a series of initiatives, such as the Capital Markets Union, aimed at diversifying the financing sources, facilitating free movement of capital and improving access to finance, in particular with regard to SMEs;

9.  Notes the lack of evidence on the outcomes and results achieved by financial instruments and the loose link between those financial instruments and the overarching objectives and priorities of the EU; calls on the Commission to further improve the provision of grants instead of primarily promoting the use of financial instruments;

10.  Notes that in the 2007-2013 programming period several obstacles, such as the effects of the economic crisis, the complex management of structural funds and administrative burdens, as well as limited access to financing for SMEs and complexity of implementation of support schemes, led to an insufficient absorption of such funds by SMEs; warns that the underlying reasons for the low absorption rate need to be addressed in order to avoid any recurrence of the same problems in the 2014-2020 programming period, and that excessive bureaucracy prevented some SMEs from applying for the available funds; regrets the too general and incomplete nature of the existing studies on the efficiency and real impact of the ESI Funds on SMEs and asks the Commission to rapidly prepare an assessment of this issue, in cooperation with the Member States, and submit it to Parliament; stresses that poor administrative capacity may hinder the successful and timely implementation of TO 3;

11.  Takes note that the Commission is paying increased attention to good governance and high-quality public services; recalls the importance for SMEs to have a transparent, consistent and innovative public procurement set-up; urges, therefore, that obstacles faced by SMEs in bidding for contracts be removed as far as possible, eliminating unnecessary administrative burdens, avoiding the creation of additional requirements at national level and implementing the existing legislative framework provisions with a view to resolving public purchasing disputes as rapidly as possible; welcomes Directive 2014/24/EU and the European Single Procurement Document (ESPD), which should considerably reduce the administrative burden for companies, in particular SMEs; stresses the need to continue with the strict application of anti-error and anti-fraud measures without adding to the administrative burden, and to simplify administrative procedures in order to prevent errors; calls on contracting authorities wishing to group contracts together to take care not to exclude SMEs from the process by the sheer scale of the final lot, since larger contracts could involve more cumbersome criteria;

12.  Reiterates its calls to enhance transparency and the participation of all relevant regional and local authorities, civil society stakeholders, entrepreneurs and other interested parties, especially in the process of defining the requirements in calls for project proposals in order to better target final beneficiaries’ needs; underlines, therefore, the need for actual implementation and respect of the partnership principle also at the drafting, preparation and implementation stages of partnership agreements and operational programmes, as detailed in the Common Provisions Regulation and the Code of Conduct on Partnership; notes with concern that many SME organisations in the Member States are not really involved and are often only informed without being adequately consulted; encourages organisations representing future-oriented, sustainable and eco-innovative sectors of the economy to get involved in the partnership and calls on the Commission and the Member States to empower them by making use of technical assistance and capacity building;

13.  Calls on the Commission and the Member States to ensure enhanced coordination and consistency among all EU investment policies targeted at SMEs; notes that enhancing the synergy between ESI funding and other policies and financial instruments targeted at SMEs will maximise the impact of investments; welcomes the plan to ease access to ESI Funds through the introduction of a ‘seal of excellence’ for projects which have been evaluated as ‘excellent’ but are not financed by Horizon 2020; urges the Member States, in partnership with relevant social and economic stakeholders, to create either a one-stop shop at regional level, thus promoting the already existing ones, or a consolidated platform for the various EU financing instruments aimed at SMEs, as well for administrative support for preparation and implementation of projects;

14.  Highlights the role that Integrated Territorial Investments (ITI), Community-Led Local Development (CLLD), macro-regional strategies and European territorial cooperation in general could play in the successful implementation of TO 3 objectives, given that some projects may involve cross-border areas, including several regions and countries, and are able to develop place-based innovative practices;

15.  Notes that according to the first evaluation released by the Commission the amounts allocated to support for SMEs have increased substantially as compared with the previous programming periods; highlights that the ESI Funds, and notably operational programmes aimed at supporting research and development, could help SMEs increase their capacity to submit patent applications to the European Patent Office by providing viable and user-friendly financing schemes;

16.  Regrets the delays in implementing cohesion policy during the current programming period; points out the urgent nature of access to finance by SMEs and that, although all operational programmes have now been approved, implementation itself is still at a very early stage; notes that delays create gaps in the implementation of cohesion policy and urges the Commission to develop measures for accelerated elimination of such delays;

17.  Urges the Commission to monitor and encourage the acceleration of implementation of cohesion policy, in particular the setting up of projects with sustainable growth and quality job creation potential, also focusing on projects launched in rural areas in order to create new services and avoid rural depopulation; calls on the Commission, in determining eligibility criteria, to consider the added value in economic and social terms and the environmental impact of projects;

18.  Emphasises Parliament’s role in the supervision of results-oriented implementation of cohesion policy; calls on the Commission to identify and reduce, at the earliest possible stage, obstacles preventing the efficient use of funds for SMEs and start-ups, to identify potential synergies among ESI Funds and between ESI Funds and other SME-relevant funds, and to provide specific recommendations for action and guidance aimed at further simplifying, monitoring and assessing the use of such financial instruments; notes that there are increased difficulties in this sector, especially in outermost regions and in those areas where the poor quality of key infrastructure leads to low amounts of private investment;

19.  Stresses the need for structured dialogue between the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund in order to improve and facilitate the access of SMEs to diversified funding sources;

20.  Highlights that the main obstacles preventing SMEs from broadly accessing ESI Funds include administrative burden, a large number of aid schemes, complexity of rules and procedures, delays in introducing executive acts and the risk of gold-plating; asks the High Level Group on Simplification, therefore, to deliver concrete proposals, also bearing in mind the Better Regulation Strategy, to reduce the administrative burden and simplify procedures in the management of ESI Funds by SMEs, with special emphasis on the requirements relating to the audit, management flexibility, risk and interim assessment, control system and coherence with competition rules and other EU policies; requests that such simplification measures respect the Small Business Act (SBA) rules of ‘Only once’ and ‘Think small first’, and be conceived and implemented at different levels in cooperation with representatives of different categories of SMEs; calls on the High Level Group (HLG) to communicate the results of its activities to Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development on an ongoing basis and calls on the Commission to consult the representatives of the Member States on the issues being dealt with by the HLG;

21.  Calls on the Commission to establish conditions for State aid at national and regional level which will not discriminate against SMEs and which should be in line with Cohesion Policy support for enterprises, and to make full use of aid schemes based on the general block exemption regulation, so as to reduce the administrative burden for administrations and beneficiaries and increase the take-up of ESI Funds, while clarifying the link between the rules on ESI Funds for SMEs and the rules on State aid;

22.  Asks the Commission to encourage the Member States to exchange data, knowledge and best practices in this respect, ensuring appropriate reporting and motivating them to support projects with high job creation potential;

23.  Calls on the Commission and the Member States to urgently find a lasting solution to the backlog of payments related to regional policy and to properly apply the Late Payment Directive (2011/7/EU), so as to ensure that SMEs, as project partners, will not be deterred from taking part in support programmes and projects during the current programming period on account of payment delays; also points out that more thorough compliance with this directive, requiring, inter alia, that public authorities make payments within 30 days for the goods and services that they procure, would contribute to creating the conditions for stabilisation and growth of SMEs;

24.  Stresses that smart specialisation strategies, although not formally required as ex ante conditionalities in TO 3, are a crucial tool in guaranteeing innovation and the adaptability of thematic objectives, and underlines, at the same time, that these strategies should target not only science and technology-led innovation but also non-science based innovation; asks the Commission to report to Parliament on the results of smart specialisation strategies devoted to SMEs at national and/or regional level; highlights the coherence of smart specialisation strategies adopted by every single region with the related territorial economy, and the challenge of implementing smart specialisation in non-urban areas which may not have sufficient supporting infrastructure; welcomes the ex ante conditionality relating to the SBA in TO 3 and calls on the Member States to undertake the necessary action and speed up achievement of the targets set in the SBA; supports the European Entrepreneurial Region (EER) Award, aimed at identifying and rewarding EU regions with outstanding, future-oriented entrepreneurial strategies applying ten principles of the SBA;

25.  Asks the managing authorities to take into consideration the characteristics and specific competences of individual territories, with a focus on those suffering from underdevelopment, depopulation and high unemployment rates, in order to promote both traditional and innovative economic sectors; calls on the Commission to draw up specific programmes which embody all relevant sustainable, smart and inclusive growth elements for SMEs; recalls the existence of the gender gap, as also identified in the SBA, and expresses its concern about the ongoing low participation of women in starting up and running a business; calls on the Commission and the Member States to encourage the implementation of specific strategies to support youth and female entrepreneurship in the context of green growth, as a way to reconcile economic and employment growth, social inclusion and professionalism with environmental sustainability;

26.  Asks the Commission to establish a participatory platform within existing budgets for the dissemination of SME project results, including examples of good practice also carried out under the ERDF during the 2000-2006 and 2007-2013 programming periods;

27.  Notes that the ‘smart guide to innovation services’ drawn up by the Commission stresses the importance of public support strategies, developed in consultation with social and economic stakeholders at regional level, in providing SMEs with a favourable environment and helping them maintain a competitive position in global value chains;

28.  Underlines the challenges and opportunities facing SMEs in adapting and complying with the recent decisions taken at the COP21 conference;

29.  Considers that suitable support and incentives for the action of SMEs can deliver innovative opportunities for the integration of refugees and migrants;

30.  Emphasises that as SMEs are the main source of employment in the EU, the setting up of enterprises should be facilitated by the promotion of entrepreneurial skills and the introduction of entrepreneurship in school curricula, as identified in the SBA, and that, especially in microcredit schemes, adequate training and business support is crucial and special training is needed to prepare young people for the green economy;

31.  Calls on the Commission, in cooperation with the Member States and managing authorities, to stimulate the creation of an ecosystem composed of universities, research centres, social and economic stakeholders and public institutions to foster entrepreneurial skills, while encouraging managing authorities to engage the available funds intended for technical assistance, including the innovative uses of ICT by SMEs; notes also, in this regard, that the technical assistance provided for in thematic objective 11 must benefit all the partners referred to in Article 5 of the Common Provisions Regulation on partnership; calls, therefore, for access by the territorial SME organisations to the provisions of TO 11 and to capacity building measures to be ensured;

32.  Highlights that only about 25 % of EU-based SMEs carry out export activities in the EU and that internationalisation of SMEs is a process that needs support also at local level; calls, therefore, on the Commission to make greater use of ESI Funds to help SMEs to seize the opportunities offered, and address the challenges posed, by international trade, while supporting them in addressing adjustment costs and the negative impacts of increased international competition;

33.  Calls on the Commission, when preparing cohesion policy for the post-2020 period, to increase funding for the strengthening of the competitiveness of SMEs;

34.  Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council and the Commission.

(1) Texts adopted, P7_TA(2014)0364.
(2) OJ C 24, 22.1.2016, p. 2.
(3) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2015)0198.
(4) OJ C 21 E, 28.1.2010, p. 1.
(5) OJ C 188 E, 28.6.2012, p. 7.
(6) OJ C 68 E, 7.3.2014, p. 40.
(7) Texts adopted, P7_TA(2014)0002.
(8) Texts adopted, P8_TA(2015)0308.
(9) OJ L 124, 20.5.2003, p. 36.
(10) OJ C 218, 30.7.2013, p. 12.
(11) OJ C 415, 20.11.2014, p. 5.

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