Dr Metsola, with the European elections over and a new European Commission soon taking over, a new momentum is expected to finalise the EU budget for 2021-2027. Do you think the EU’s investments match its political priorities and are sufficiently ambitious?
Our quality of life depends heavily on the environment we live in, so climate-relevant action is, of course, one of the priorities for the next EU budget, with a proposed 25 per cent dedicated to the important decisions that must be made to address climate change. But, importantly, the budget also addresses the reduction of the use of plastic and the improvement of air quality.
This proposed EU budget includes significant increases in financing that will go towards Erasmus+, migration and border management, as well as research, innovation and the digital field. It is crucial that Europe continues to invest efficiently in industry, with the best possible results, and this must be done in a manner that ensures the continent is capable of keeping up with its global competitors.
A new SME strategy is long overdue. This appears to be forthcoming during this mandate. How do you think SMEs can be aided to be productive, innovate and grow?
Saying that SMEs are the backbone of Europe’s economy shouldn’t simply be a fancy way of describing our 21 million SMEs across the EU for about 85 per cent of jobs actually depend on SMEs.
While governments need to focus their strategic efforts on improving the environment in which SMEs operate, we need to be looking at an SME strategy that doesn’t simply improve the business environment in an isolated national context. The new SME strategy must ensure that businesses are given all the tools necessary to exchange best practices, for instance, with respect to finding ways of improving access to finance and increasing the uptake of EU funds. The process needs to be less cumbersome and funding must be made more accessible, even for the smaller firms.
While we need to make sure that the Single Market caters precisely for the backbone of Europe’s economy in a way that it is SMEfriendly, the new SME strategy needs to be designed in a way that puts SMEs in the best possible position to operate in the current global climate and to continue doing so effectively in the future. To this end, the strategy must address issues such as skills and talent, innovation and digitalisation, as well as internationalisation.
The EU is facing many labour market challenges, particularly characterised by an ageing population and a structural skills mismatch. Companies today are struggling to hire employees with the right profile compared to 5-10 years ago. What, in your view, can the EU do to address what many have already started labelling as a ‘skills crisis’?
We need to work on European legislation like the Blue Card that will allow any member state to better fill any gaps in the labour market.
It is not only about legislation. This is another area where exchange of best practices across member states could be extremely beneficial for SMEs. The EU’s action plans have been focusing on increasing the EU talent pool and helping people to acquire new skills, with a focus on new technologies.
Much more, certainly, needs to be done to properly implement these plans by creating stronger networking programmes between educational institutions, such as the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology and the University of Malta, and their counterparts across the other member states. But this also needs to be done in conjunction with industry players in order to ensure that the various needs are addressed and met accordingly.
This interview first featured in Economic Vision 2020