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Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)

Promoting international activities of SME

Copyright Franck Boston -

In a globalised world, SMEs need to be able to confront an increasing competition from developed and emerging economies and to plug into the new market opportunities these countries will provide. There is a direct link between internationalization and increased SMEs performance. International activities reinforce growth, enhance competitiveness and support the long term sustainability of companies. Yet European SMEs still depend largely on their domestic markets despite the opportunities brought by the enlarged single market and by globalization at large.

SMEs play a pivotal role in the EU economic developments and the Commission gives utmost importance to its prosperity. The following initiatives are taken at EU level:

  • In line with principle ten of the Small Business Act, EU business centres helping the EU SMEs to enter third-country markets were established in India and China. Both centers provide business support services including matchmaking, market access assistance, guidance on regulatory issues, IPR.
  • The IPR Help Desk in China has been operational for the last three years delivering a targeted advice on IPR issues to EU SMEs.
  • The Enterprise Europe Network continues to enlarge in third countries.
  • The Commission established a number of SME policy dialogues both bilaterally (China, Russia) and multilaterally (EU-MED Cooperation, Eastern Partnership) aimed at approximation of SMEs policy framework.
  • As a result of the "Market Access Strategy" for European exporters of 2007, Market Access Teams are now operations in 30 key export markets. They bring together trade councilors, European Commission and EU business organizations closely cooperation to inform each other about trade barriers and the way how to tackle them.
  • A study on internationalisation of European SMEs was completed.
  • To help you achieve your internationalisation goals, the European Commission offers the following support services: Helping you internationalise your SME (in other languages: BG, CS, DA, DE, EL, ES, ET, FI, FR, HR, HU, IT, LT, LV, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, SV)

SME Internationalisation Portal

The database lists (semi) public support service providers for companies planning to extend their business beyond the borders of the EU

In a globalised world, EU-based small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need to be able to plug into the market opportunities developed and emerging economies countries provide. 

Under SMEs across the European Union can easily access the contact and service details of a large number of (semi) public support service providers at their doorstep and in international growth markets. These service providers all help EU-based SMEs extend their business to growth markets beyond the EU.

The database is provided by the European Commission. It is free of charge and open to the public.
(Semi) public service providers offering specialised services for SMEs that plan to extend their business beyond the borders of the EU are invited to register via the portal's homepage and add their service offer to the database.
The portal also links to the European Commission's "Market Access Database", which provides market access information for the individual growth markets.

Study on Support Services for SMEs in International Business 2013

At present, relatively few SMEs in the EU are doing business beyond Europe. As SMEs are the backbone of the EU economy, they could be the vehicle to restoring growth in the EU, provided they enter the markets of fast growing economies. Moreover, those SMEs that have international operations report stronger turnover growth, higher rates of job creation, and increased innovation capacity.

Amongst the objectives of the Commission’s strategy in the Communication ‘Small Business, Big World’ are providing SMEs with easily accessible and adequate information on how to expand their businesses outside the EU, improving the coherence of the activities and filling the gaps in the existing services.

The guidelines of the present study on mapping and analysing the existing support services come from the strategy above. This study serves two purposes:

  • Collecting data for a portal for EU SMEs seeking support services for internationalisation;
  • Assisting with identifying gaps and overlaps in existing support services.

The study aims at assessing the scope and availability of support services for EU SMEs, both within the EU and in 25 countries outside the EU. The outcome of the study should be an inventory of the support measures and an analysis of gaps and overlaps in existing services being offered in order to identify the needs for any future additional action.

Study on Business Networks

The main objective of the study was to investigate and highlight emerging new forms of inter-firm collaboration and to propose possible measures to support and coordinate them at European level where and if appropriate.

The final report is based on findings and conclusions from a sample of case studies conducted within 8 Member States of the European Union.

The business networks studied through the eight case studies could be divided into two broad types: business associations and company aggregations.

A key difference between the business network associations and aggregations of companies is that the associations provide a platform and conditions for cooperation. The actual decision to cooperate or not to achieve certain objectives is left to the association members. The companies, which decided to cooperate and aggregate, have already taken the decision that they will work together on a basis of a concrete jointly set objective and a cooperation agreement/contract.

Business networks have strategic and operational objectives. Strategic objectives are focused on longer term activities that help business network members:

  • Strengthen innovation;
  • Internationalise;
  • Foreign matchmaking.

Operational objectives are more diverse and include: 

  • Provision of legal and financial services;
  • Collaboration in regional, national, transnational and European projects;
  • Increased buying power through joint purchasing;
  • Optimising HR-marketing for recruitment of (highly specialised) talent;
  • Provision of Intellectual property protection.

The study:

09/11/2011 - ‘Small Business, Big World — a new partnership to help SMEs seize global opportunities’

The European Commission proposes a new strategy aimed at helping small and medium-sized enterprises to expand their business outside the European Union. This could trigger new dynamism for European economy.

The new strategy sets out 6 fields of action:

  1. Strengthening and mapping the existing supply of support services
  2. Creating a single virtual gateway to information for SMEs
  3. Making support schemes at EU level more consistent
  4. Promoting clusters and networks for SME internationalisation
  5. Rationalising new activities in priority markets
  6. Leveraging existing EU external policies

Study on the level of internationalisation of European SMEs

In 2009 the Commission launched a study to map the level of internationalisation of European SMEs, identify which are the main barriers and advantages of internationalisation and propose policy recommendations. The study analysed all activities that put SMEs into a meaningful business relationship with a foreign partner: exports, imports, foreign direct investment, international subcontracting and international technical co-operation. The data and conclusions are based on a survey of 9,480 SMEs in 33 European countries. The survey was carried out during spring 2009.

The most relevant finding was that 25% of EU 27 SMEs export or have exported at some point during the last 3 years. However, international activities are mostly geared towards other countries inside the internal market and only about 13% of EU SMEs are active in markets outside the EU.

In addition to the numbers presenting the state of internationalisation, the study presents fact based evidence of the need to support greater internationalisation which has political consequences:

  • International SMEs create more jobs: Internationally active SMEs report an employment growth of 7% versus only 1% for SMEs without any international activities.
  • International SMEs are more innovative: 26% of internationally active SMEs introduced products or services that were new for their sector in their country; for other SMEs this is only 8%.
  • Public support goes largely un-noticed: Only 16% of SMEs are aware of public support programmes for internationalisation and only a small number of SMEs use public support.
  • European SMEs are more internationally active than US and Japanese SMEs. Overall, European firms are more active than their counterparts in Japan or the US. Even if only extra EU exports are considered they still perform better.
  • Most often SMEs start international activities by importing. SMEs that both import and export started with import twice as often (39%) than with exports (18%).

Report of the study:

Survey results:

Study on the internationalisation opportunities for European SMEs in third countries

The Report of the Study on the Opportunities for the Internationalisation of European SMEs (2011) has now been published. It builds on the results of the 2009 study and looks at opportunities and support available for EU SMEs looking to do business outside the EU, particularly in the key markets of Brazil, Russia, India, China, Japan, South Korea and Ukraine. The study focuses on three main elements: an assessment of the market potential for SMEs in key markets outside the EU, an examination of the options to better connect European SMEs to international markets, and a review of specific measures to facilitate the access of European SMEs to these markets.

The final report synthesizing the results and policy recommendations is now available, together with the presentations from the study conference and the separate background documents presenting the results from each of the study work packages.

Previous studies and reports

All Member States have a range of measures and support measures in place to help smaller companies expand their international operations. Yet in 2006 the Commission launched the Best project "Supporting the internationalisation of SMEs" to understand the barriers that impede greater SME involvement on international operations, the drivers that foster the process and to propose policy recommendations and identify successful transferable practices. This project lasted 2 years.

With the help of an expert group, the project examined national and regional policies to support the internationalisation of SMEs both inside the Single Market and outside the EU with a goal to provide recommendations on how public policies could support SMEs' efforts to achieve international growth and have a more international orientation.

The project produced two final documents:

  • A final report based on the recommendations of the experts and supported by statistical data and studies on the subject. This document proposes policy recommendations based on the situation, barriers and drivers for internationalisation
    Final Report of the Expert Group on Supporting the internationalisation of SMEs pdf - 348 KB [348 KB]
  • A good practice brochure, presenting a collection of national and regional policies that tackle some of the main problems SMEs face when operating or considering to operate in foreign markets or considering doing so.
    Supporting the internationalisation of SMEs - Good practice selection pdf - 2 MB [2 MB] български (bg) čeština (cs) dansk (da) Deutsch (de) eesti keel (et) ελληνικά (el) español (es) français (fr) italiano (it) latviešu valoda (lv) lietuvių kalba (lt) magyar (hu) Nederlands (nl) polski (pl) português (pt) română (ro) slovenčina (sk) slovenščina (sl) suomi (fi) svenska (sv)

All 27 EU Member States plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey were invited to nominate an expert on the subject. Experts from 25 countries participated in the project and met 4 times, from November 2006 to September 2007.

Background information

  • Internationalisation of SMEs, Observatory of European SMEs (2003)
    Observatory of European SMEs 2003, No. 4
  • Flash Eurobarometer 196 - Observatory of European SMEs, Analytical report (2007)
    Observatory of European SMEs, Analytical Report pdf - 14 MB [14 MB]

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