Reindustrialising Europe: What Role for Smaller Businesses in Making Europe Sustainable?

The European Union’s Commission, Parliament, and Council have had one issue on their minds lately: the economy. As the economic crisis continues, and worsens in some Member States, few EU matters can be discussed without mention of our financial woes. While European leaders argue over austerity versus growth, the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament are pushing their plan to solve economic, social and environmental issues in one policy: the Green New Deal (GND).

The GND aims at reforming EU policy to make it sustainable and socially just – putting people and the planet above the endless strive for greater wealth. In a recent blog, I outlined the role that big industry would play in creating the GND, as discussed in a recent conference at the European Parliament. However, for any policy change, there has to be financing available and regulations in place.

Euro in plant pot CC BY Images_of_Money

This was the second topic of debate at the conference. Taking part were Michal Miedzinski from the Eco-Innovation Observatory, Andrea Benassi, Secretary-General of the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME), and Philippe Lamberts MEP for the Greens, who chaired the debate. The discussion focused on what role small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can play in reforming our economy and how to support them.

The GND is not simply proposing changes to economic policy but to the entire foundation of EU budgetary policies. How would this work in practice? The GND calls for a Keynesian macro-economic framework with strong financial regulation at EU level to prevent policies which are environmentally or socially unjust. There is also a greater focus on taxes: fighting tax evasion and taxing financial transactions in order to finance a greener economy and make society more equal. Thirdly, the GND addresses unemployment; an increasingly worrying trend throughout the EU. As well as arguing that a greener economy would reduce unemployment, the GND also proposes to offer training or employment to all young people and increase training in the green sector to equip workers for a move to a greener Europe.

With this in mind the panel discussed how SMEs fit into the GND. The over-riding sense was that SMEs are becoming greener, but at a very slow pace with little support from the EU and it’s Member States. These small businesses, and the organisations like UEAPME which support them, need four areas of support in order to become green: funding, targets, guidelines, and a skilled workforce. The EU is not doing enough to provide SMEs with this support. For example, much of the funding available for green innovation and research requires applications for amounts far out of reach of the majority of smaller businesses. Similarly, there is little training or exchange of best practice at a local level – where SMEs are most likely to operate – offered to those wishing to make their companies greener.

SMEs would benefit from systemic greening of their businesses: it supports longevity, saves money, and can open them up to new customers. There are many fine examples of companies who have succeeded by being green, especially in Western Europe where the customer demand for green products is greater. These examples need to become the norm.

According to the representative from UEAPME, 93 per cent of their enterprises have put energy efficiency measures in place, but in the majority of cases these are minimal changes: doing what they can with the support they have. To understand the unique needs of each business and make real systemic transformations, these changes have to come from a local level but with support and guidance from the EU.

The European Union can and should do more to promote sustainable business practices among SMEs and this can only be done by setting realistic, achievable targets, and while countries and regions determine how their local businesses can individually meet these targets. A GND does not mean simply throwing a green blanket over everything. For it to be successful, it must allow for different needs and structures across the EU’s twenty-seven Member States and create a patchwork of green initiatives which encourage innovation. This is how the Green New Deal can become a success and make Europe truly sustainable.

About Cat Hellewell

Cat is a Programme Assistant on Criminal Justice and the EU Multiannual Financial Framework at the Quaker Council for European Affairs.
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