Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, for his kind invitation to this meeting.
We are living in very difficult economic times.
After a sharp contraction of the Irish economy in 2008-2010, modest growth was restored last year when GDP increased by 0,9%; and modest growth of 0,5% is forecast for this year.
Although much remains to be done to restore confidence among business operators, markets and citizens, Ireland is on track with its efforts to emerge from the crisis.
Across the EU, unemployment is still increasing, reaching unacceptable levels. The lack of job opportunities is hitting young people especially and compelling many to migrate.
Several Member States, including Ireland, have undertaken a number of structural reforms to respond to market inefficiencies. However, actions taken at Member State level are not sufficient to cope with the challenges we face.
If we want to restore growth and strengthen our economy we have only one path to follow: putting the real economy and competitiveness at the centre of the European agenda.
If we want to maintain our economic and social model - an achievement of European efforts, over the last 60 years - we need to come back to the real economy and a competitive and innovative industry.
This focus on growth and competitiveness is a key pillar in the Commission's strategy to establish a global response to the economic crisis.
We need strong and clear political choices which concentrate the available resources in a few priority sectors which are vital for the Union as a whole and transcend the boundaries of national interests.
As Commissioner responsible for Industry and Enterprise, I would like to take this opportunity to illustrate some actions that I am developing with my services.
A new industrial revolution
Promoting the competitiveness of the European economy means paving the way to a new industrial revolution.
In particular, we need to invest more in 3 specific fields:
- Research, innovation and education;
- Trans-European infrastructure networks;
- Industrial reconversion, with a particular focus on: energy and manufacture. Industrial reconversion should allow a more efficient use of available resources.
The issue of resource-efficiency is crucial.
For example, China has spent an average of 66 billion dollars per year on its oil imports, during the last decade.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), this Chinese expenditure will reach 251 billion dollars by the end of 2012.
Moreover, starting in 2030, Europe's dependency on oil imports will reach 90% of energy needs.
Rising oil prices will pose a challenge to our competitiveness. It is therefore crucial to implement a strategy for a more sustainable and efficient use of resources.
If we want to take the lead in the new industrial revolution, we need to enhance our technological leadership.
We need to take advantage of all opportunities provided by pooling our scarce resources. This is why the Commission has proposed 80 billion euros for "Horizon 2020", our programme for investment in research and innovation.
We aim to devote more resources to applied research, pilot projects, and clusters involving Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, universities and research centres.
We also have to focus on sectors with high potential, such as photonics, new materials and space. These sectors are essential for the production of renewable energy, for recycling and energy efficiency and for a better management of transport.
In particular, I would like to emphasise the importance of the "Key Enabling Technologies", such as nanotechnologies, advanced materials, and industrial biotechnology. These sectors are expected to grow by up to 50% by 2015, creating thousands of new jobs.
We are also encouraging Member States to reduce the fragmentation of innovation policies and improve cooperation between business and academia. Research has to be industry-oriented, translating ideas into innovative goods and services, in line with our mantra: “from idea to the market”.
We need to exploit the demand for innovative products and services coming from the public sector. Nearly 20% of our GDP is created by public procurement. Using this purchasing power to demand more innovative solutions would be an enormous asset for enterprises and in particular for innovative SMEs.
Significant help could also come from exploiting space as a growth area. Economic studies show that the Galileo satellite system will generate €90 billion worth of social and economic benefits over the next 20 years. This is something that we can only achieve by working together.
To fully exploit the opportunities of the globalised world, Europe should consolidate and enhance its industrial base.
SMEs account for 99% of enterprises in the EU and are the largest creator of new jobs. So, the more younger, growing firms we have, the better.
We are working hard to promote entrepreneurship across Europe, by trying to remove administrative obstacles, improve access to credit and support internationalization.
To help entrepreneurs start up a company we encourage the use of "one-stop shops".
Setting up a business now takes on average 9 days, but we would like to reduce it to 3 days or less, with a cost of less than €100.
Further, under the Erasmus for Entrepreneurs programme, there have already been one thousand exchanges of young entrepreneurs.
This programme encourages prospective entrepreneurs to learn business practices internationally. The vast majority of entrepreneurs participating go on to have longer-lasting business relationships, opening up new markets and growing their businesses.
Across Europe, the most urgent problem that SMEs are facing today, concerns access to credit.
In the last two years, almost a third of SMEs that applied for a bank loan did not get any credit or got less than what they applied for. We must therefore restore the link between finance and the real economy.
The lack of financing for SMEs means no innovation, no investment in quality, no access to new markets and in the end no growth.
This is why I have strongly encouraged the adoption of an Action Plan to improve their access to finance.
We also need more venture capital in Europe, and I have recently proposed the creation of a genuine internal market for venture capital funds.
In addition, the future Programme for the competitiveness of enterprises and SMEs (COSME), with a total proposed budget of 2.5 billion euros, is designed to allocate money to financial instruments helping SMEs.
In the light of these needs, I firmly suggest the implementation of a new and more guarantee-focused strategy for credit and venture capital, involving the European Investment Bank in a more active role.
The Irish export success shows that we need to raise our level of ambition in the world. According to the OECD, by 2015, about 90% of world growth will be generated outside Europe. But today only 13% of European SMEs are internationally active outside the EU!
This is why we are helping SMEs to find ways to prosper in new markets.
I have undertaken so called “Missions for Growth” to Latin America to support our exporting firms, and I plan to continue by visiting, among others, USA, Mexico and China. I feel that “economic diplomacy” can be a very useful way to promote our businesses across the world.
While we keep thinking that open markets and trade are keys to economic growth, I believe that we should have a less naive conception of business policy.
Trade should be free, but also fair, with a common level playing field for all parties involved. This means no dumping, protection of intellectual property rights and reciprocity. That is why I commend the action undertaken by my colleagues Barnier and De Gucht to improve reciprocity in public procurement.
We must not forget that the Single Market is the home market for Irish and European firms. We have to ensure that the Single Market works effectively in all domains: goods, services, networks, utilities, and of course, in the digital economy.
There is no digital single market yet - but it is estimated that a truly digital single market could boost EU GDP by as much as €110 billion a year. This implies for example allowing cross border online sales or recognising cross border electronic signatures.
Finally, allow me to mention Tourism. This sector is already a key generator of wealth and jobs. We must increase tourism flows by ensuring smoother visa procedures, especially for BRIC visitors. We can also extend the high tourist season via incentives for low-season exchanges.
We should all bear in mind that growth is intrinsically linked to innovation and creativity.
In this respect, I am pleased to see that the Irish Government has adopted an "Action Plan for Jobs", sharing the same goals of job creation and growth that I have placed at the centre of my mandate.
The success of the European social model depends on the ability to act together, to create the right conditions for businesses to prosper and to make one dynamic and well coordinated single market.
The EU economies, that are currently experiencing negative growth and rising unemployment, will not recover without a European plan supported by adequate resources.
In my opinion, we should also move towards improved economic governance, with a stronger European Central Bank.
Reaching these objectives will require courage.
As you know, I’m Italian and I share the Irish love of soccer.
I met the Taoiseach this morning. I understand that next week he will accompany Giovanni Trapattoni - on a special visit to Ireland’s holy mountain, Croke Patrick, in his home county, Mayo, just one month before the kick-off of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
I think that Mr. Trapattoni was an excellent choice for the Irish national football team:
- Because he was born on St. Patrick's Day (17 of March);
- Because he played a central role in Ireland's qualification for Euro 2012 (after 24 years);
- And last, but not least, as you know Mr. Trapattoni is a master in the art of “never giving up”, upon which he has built most of his outstanding career.
I am confident that Ireland’s football team will perform well during the Euro Championship.
I am also confident that Ireland, as it emerges from the crisis, will play a significant role in boosting European growth, innovation and competitiveness.
Thank you !