The European Commission has identified the main barriers to the internationalisation of the EU’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and put in place many measures to help them expand their business to international markets both within and beyond the EU, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors. However, these measures sometimes lack coherence and visibility, and the Commission does not always coordinate them well enough with Member States’ own programmes. The Commission’s flagship Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) initiative, which provides a support network for SMEs with international ambitions, needs better coverage in non-EU countries, while another smaller initiative specifically focusing on high-tech start-ups – StartUp Europe – needs more long-term continuity in its activities.
SMEs – businesses which employ fewer than 250 workers – are the backbone of the EU economy: they make up 99% of all businesses in the EU. Outside the financial sector, they provide two thirds of jobs in business, and generate over half of the EU’s economic production. However, they only account for 30% of EU exports. SMEs are less active in international markets than larger businesses: they are often unaware of international trade and public support schemes, and frequently they simply lack the necessary know-how. To address these challenges, the Commission has put in place a large number of support programmes. In 2011, it adopted an EU strategy for SME internationalisation that set out to improve the coherence and coordination of all existing support.
“Small businesses are big business for the EU. By trading across Europe and exporting beyond its borders, they can make an even bigger contribution to the EU’s economy,” said Ivana Maletić, the ECA member in charge of the report. “The Commission should make the information on SME internationalisation support more readily available and bring its programmes closer to European SMEs, which are still not aware of many of the existing instruments and projects.”