Facilitating business has always been a central tenet of the European Union. Amongst the EU’s key achievements is the Single Market, which makes it possible for people, goods, services and capital to move freely around the 28 countries that encompass it, thereby creating new opportunities for citizens, workers, consumers and businesses that in turn translate into new jobs and sustainable growth for Europe. The freedom to conduct business is enshrined in its Charter of Fundamental Rights, and in many ways, it has always sought to boost innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the region. However, it’s undeniable that when doing business within a diverse collection of countries such as the ones that make up the EU, international entrepreneurs often face long and complicated administrative procedures, time-consuming reporting obligations, and difficulties in accessing credit, which are key components to starting up any kind of business.
There have been several attempts to address this issue, and the Your Europe portal was one of the solutions that emerged from discussions on how to make life easier for European entrepreneurs. Your Europe was launched in February 2005, following a pilot phase that ran from 2003 to 2004. It has come a long way since, having undergone a series of revamps and structural changes. However, despite the changes, the idea has always been the same: to offer citizens and businesses across Europe practical information on their rights and obligations, and enable them to make the most of the European Single Market.
“People who ran or wished to operate a business used to have to rely on searching through Directorate General websites, non-official websites and national government portals to find relevant information,” says Maria-Lyra Traversa, Communication Adviser within the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) who is responsible for the Your Europe Business Portal. “This resulted in a lot of time wasted and the possibility of finding out-of-date information; it was one of the main reasons Your Europe Business was created.”
Maria-Lyra Traversa, Communication Adviser within the EASME, which is responsible for the Your Europe Business Portal
The aim of the portal is to have a centralised place for information about EU rules and business procedures without it being loaded down with jargon or technical terminology that’s difficult to understand. “The main emphasis is on starting up a business, taxation, cross-border selling, staffing matters and help finding finance and funding. It also offers access to financing opportunities and tools to find business partners across Europe,” Ms Traversa says. The portal links to help and advice services covering topics which include dispute resolution, issues with EU institutions, offices or agencies, and suggestions of where the user can find additional information. By filling out a contact form you can request support from local business organisations on cross-border issues.
Funding a project is always a challenge, as is bringing the idea to market, Ms Traversa says, as well as the delicate balancing act of keeping a healthy cash flow and knowing what to do and when to do it. “Those are probably the two main challenges for an SME starting up,” she asserts. However, migrants – be they EU citizens or non-EU nationals – face additional obstacles in these scenarios, from securing financial capital for starting a business, problems in recognising their qualifications, language barriers, limited knowledge of legal requirements and regulatory procedures, and in many cases cultural differences and discrimination. “The portal has already proven very useful for businesses looking for information about VAT and taxation, especially in another member state. Finance and funding is also a topic that is highly sought after, and Your Europe Business signposts users to possible sources of loans and grant opportunities,” Ms Traversa says. “As they say, ‘Knowledge is power’, and if you don't know where to look for information and advice then things are much more difficult, especially for those on a tight budget.”
Turning our attention to Malta, I ask whether the fact that the vast majority – over 80 per cent – of businesses in Malta are either micro enterprises or SMEs, can be seen as a positive or a negative aspect of Malta’s business landscape. “This is surely a positive thing, since SMEs have a lot of growth potential and by nature are flexible enough to adapt to a volatile economic environment,” Ms Traversa enthuses. “Let's not forget that in Europe, SMEs represent over 99 per cent of all businesses, have created in the past five years around 85 per cent of new jobs and provided two-thirds of the total private sector employment in the EU. Their role is definitely a crucial one!” She adds that there is a big difference between how different member states across the region encourage new businesses to start up. “I can say that some member states are working extremely efficiently with great incentives on offer to help SMEs reach their goals. There are also cases where such enticing deals aren't on offer and the entrepreneurs may need to work harder to catch up.”
Looking ahead, Ms Traversa says that the portal will continue to adapt depending on the changing policy and economic environment, and the new needs that emerge. “I would like to see the portal offer even more streamlined information in the future, including more information in all languages,” she says. “We always take on board the feedback received from users and are in close contact with EU and national policy makers so as to keep the information precise and up to date.”
Moreover, Ms Traversa says that in the coming months, the portal will be further developed as it will be at the core of the European Commission's proposal for creating a Single Digital Gateway, which will ensure, amongst other benefits, centralised access for EU citizens and businesses to all the information necessary when using their rights to mobility in the EU and full access to online procedures in a non-discriminatory way.
The objective of the Digital Single Gateway is “to take full advantage of the benefits offered by new digital tools to help businesses seize the opportunities of a market of 500 million citizens to travel, work and study in any EU country.” The creation and implementation of a Single Digital Gateway will impose on Member States an obligation to create full online access to the most important and most often used procedures, and includes a strong incentive to Member States to adopt ambitious cross-border and national e-government strategies, so EU citizens and business can benefit fully from the available technological developments. As a centralised portal that provides assistance on all issues related to doing business in Europe, the role fulfilled by Your Europe is one that will be sorely needed.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Business Agenda