Editor: What is the history and mission of EUROCHAMBRES? What is the geographic range of your organisation?
Abruzzini: EUROCHAMBRES, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry, was established in 1958 as a direct response to the creation of the European Economic Community. Its aim is to represent the views and the needs of businesses of all sectors and sizes through its network of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The ultimate goal of EUROCHAMBRES is to lobby the EU institutions to improve the general conditions in which business operates.
Founded by the National Chamber Associations of six countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany and France – today, EUROCHAMBRES represents 47 members in 45 countries, a network of 2,000 regional and local chambers with over 20 million member enterprises and 120,000,000 employees. Most of these enterprises (93 percent) are small and medium-sized (SMEs), that is, with fewer than 250 employees.
Editor: Please talk about your network of regional and local chambers and any collaborative programmes you support.
Abruzzini: The European chambers of commerce and industry are the oldest in the world – the first one dating back to 1599 – and in some cases the largest in the world, and as a group, they are certainly among the most diverse in the world. Chambers represent the views and needs of businesses of all sizes and sectors, from self-employed freelancers to major multinationals. Their historical mission is to improve the general conditions in which businesses operate, to facilitate access to markets within and beyond the EU and to ensure the availability of human, financial and natural resources.
Here are some figures to illustrate some of the chambers’ core activities: every year, chambers assist 1,300,000 businesses in their creation, provide training qualifications to 2,600,000 people, support 1,200,000 companies in “going international” and provide 250,000 companies with various innovation services.
EUROCHAMBRES’ role is to build on the expertise of its chamber network to voice business interests towards the EU institutions. We also coordinate a number of European programmes to the benefit of both chambers and the wider business community. Most of these projects focus on encouraging business relations between the EU and third countries and on promoting entrepreneurship.
Editor: What are some of your legislative goals and initiatives? Please talk about your involvement with the European Parliament. Do you engage in lobbying efforts?
Abruzzini: EUROCHAMBRES wants to contribute to policy making at the EU level, raising the voice of the millions of businesses it represents in relation to all factors that determine businesses’ success or failure, including business conditions, market opportunities and access to resources. Within these three priority areas, several more specific policy fields have been identified. Cutting across these at the EU level are the implementation of the 2008 Small Business Act for Europe and the elaboration and delivery of Europe 2020, the successor to the 2000-2010 Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs.
Of course, the European Parliament, together with the European Commission, is one of our main interlocutors in this respect. To mention one recent example of successful lobbying, in 2011, EUROCHAMBRES pressed for a review of the European patent system with the objective to cut costs and improve efficiency and accessibility for smaller businesses. A successful collaboration with the European Parliament led to the adoption of special provisions for SMEs not initially proposed by the European Commission and Council.
Editor: Do you think the current uncertain economic situation is having a significant impact on businesses in Europe, and if so, in what way? What is the current business sentiment amongst EU’s SMEs?
Abruzzini: According to EUROCHAMBRES’ latest Economic Survey (EES), based on some 70,000 businesses across 25 European countries, exports to foreign markets are the main source of optimism for 2012, a year otherwise characterised by restricted investment, negligible job creation and constrained domestic sales. Overall, the business confidence indicator is negative for only the second time in the EES' 19 years. As for employment, results suggest that while few new jobs will be created this year, most businesses are intent on maintaining current levels of staff. At the same time, domestic sales predictions are low and, mirroring the careful spending approach of end consumers, businesses themselves are planning cautious levels of investment. Clearly, structural reforms are needed in a number of EU countries to raise productivity, create jobs and enhance competitiveness.
Editor: Where are the emerging economies globally? Please talk about EUROCHAMBRES’ efforts to tap into this potential.
Abruzzini: In times of crisis, European companies are increasingly looking abroad. Fast-growing markets in emerging economies offer huge growth potential – an opportunity they cannot miss, considering the stagnation of their domestic markets. China and India, in particular, increasingly attract attention as the sheer size of these markets and impressive growth rates both suggest that developing business there is the solution for sustainable expansion.
But when trying to enter these markets, EU companies still face major obstacles: lack of regulatory transparency, administrative burdens, frequent infringements and poor enforcement of intellectual property rights, discriminatory treatment of foreign companies, closed public procurements markets and diverging standards, just to name a few.
At all levels of the economy – local, regional, national and European – the chamber network is a key player in supporting businesses to go international. Every year, over one million companies benefit from chamber internationalisation services, and 90,000 businesses participate in chamber trade missions. Abroad, bilateral chambers, European Chambers Abroad/European Business Organisations continue to develop, trying to look after European business interests in third countries.
European business centres abroad – such as the European Business and Technology Centre (EBTC) in India, the SME Centre in China or the recently established European-ASEAN Business Centre in Thailand, which are co-funded by the EU and coordinated by EUROCHAMBRES – are also very important. They address the issues that might scare away potential businessmen and investors from Europe; they provide soft-landing solutions for European entrepreneurs and take them from the point of only considering foreign markets to the point of actually developing a business plan and setting up operations there. Our commitment to facilitating market access for European companies is ongoing, with a view to possibly extending the “centres” concept to even more regions in the future.
Editor: You have characterized international investment as “a pillar of the EU-U.S. relations.” Please talk about your efforts to create meaningful dialogue and concrete results in this arena.
Abruzzini: EUROCHAMBRES recognises that the changing international economic landscape, the substantial challenges our economies are currently facing and the impasse in trade negotiations at the multilateral level call for swift, ambitious and innovative solutions to boost international trade. That’s why EUROCHAMBRES is now looking at the continent’s biggest trading partner and close ally – the United States – to explore possibilities to work together to reinvigorate the transatlantic economic relationship. The EU-U.S. economic relationship represents more than $4 trillion in trade, investment and commercial sales by foreign affiliates in each other’s markets, hence we believe that the opportunities and potential gains for EU and U.S. economic operators that could result from a boost in our transatlantic relationship are far too important to be left untapped or not fully exploited.
In a contribution towards the High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, established at the last EU-U.S. Summit to explore ways to reinvigorate the transatlantic economic relationship, EUROCHAMBRES calls for an upgrade of our economic relations across several sectors, ranging from regulatory cooperation with the aim to enhance transatlantic regulatory compatibility, the elimination of transatlantic tariffs, removing unnecessary non-tariff barriers (NTB´s), and reaching ambitious agreements in investment and services, to further opening up public procurement markets and strengthening intellectual property protection.
The time has come to use all available resources to boost the U.S.-EU economic relations and to avoid from the outset any negotiating fatigue. An efficient use of our resources and the mandate to deliver jobs and growth in accordance with the Europe 2020 Agenda, the mandate of the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC) and the High-level Working Group on Jobs and Growth requires all players not to embark on a lengthy “scoping exercise” to determine which issues to tackle and when, thus failing to exploit the momentum in our bilateral relations. Hence EUROCHAMBES has called for the swift launch of a negotiating mandate from EU and U.S. leaders at the G20 in May of this year.
We firmly believe that any new transatlantic initiative needs to build on the work already accomplished within the framework of the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC) and that the private sector and Chambers of Commerce in particular should have an active role to play in shaping this new EU-U.S. initiative.
Investment, as mentioned already, is one of the key pillars in which we would like to see an upgrade of our economic relations. We welcomed the Joint Statement of Shared Investment Principles by the European Commission and its U.S. counterpart in trade, the U.S. Trade Representative. EUROCHAMBRES has already called for the highest possible standards of protection for investors, including nondiscrimination principles, fair and equitable treatment, full protection and security, provisions on compensation for direct and indirect expropriation, free transfer of capitals and return and effective investor-state dispute settlement, and we are pleased to see these fundamental elements reflected in the Joint Statement. However, we now hope to see the Joint Principles on Investment materialise in a new EU-U.S. economic initiative.
Editor: How can Europe’s competitiveness be enhanced by your efforts and the interests you serve?
Abruzzini: Europe is confronted with two daunting economic challenges, which must be won if Europe has to remain a key political and economic actor on the world stage.
Firstly, most EU governments, particularly in the euro area, are confronted with the need to drastically improve their fiscal positions. Their deficits and debts have been deteriorating at a fast pace over the past years as a result of extraordinary stimulus measures, historical over-indebtedness and lack of fiscal and labour market reforms. For a number of EU countries, bold fiscal policies to curb spending and stabilise public accounts are thus of the essence.
Secondly, Europe is confronted with a competitiveness challenge. The EU suffers from a static labour market, high labour costs and, again, a historical lack of “competitiveness reforms” in many of its member states. Only an increase in productivity can pave the way to enhanced potential growth in Europe. EU countries are thus called to cut administrative burdens, pursue labour market reforms, create a clearer and lighter fiscal framework for businesses, help business creation, remove barriers to cross-border trade within the internal market – particularly for small and medium enterprises – and invest more in research & development, particularly through the private sector.
However, despite the big challenges described above, Europe has some cards to play in order to remain the biggest world economic block as well as an attractive business destination. It enjoys a large single market with considerable unexploited potential, particularly in the service sector. It is from the relaunch of its single market that Europe can start regaining economic vigour and impetus to grasp global opportunities.
In all this, European chambers continue to promote an entrepreneurial mindset in Europe and try to ensure that fewer barriers hinder trade and investment. Business creation, development and transfer of enterprises, training and education and the internationalisation of businesses and innovation are some of the concrete services that the chambers perform to the benefit of businesses with the objective of ensuring that Europe remains a first-class business location.