Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a very great pleasure to be here at this Economic Summit. I think it’s hugely important that we have this chance, as leaders from business and politics, to get together and share ideas. Because we can only build a positive future for Europe if all of us – government, citizens, businesses – play our part.
Building true European champions
It’s very easy to imagine that Europe’s prosperity, our stability, are inevitable – the natural order of things. But they’re not. They’re the outcome of decades of effort, building a democracy that works for people, markets that work for consumers, a society that works for everyone.
That’s made Europe today the best place to live in all of history – especially if you’re a woman. But when they look to the future, many Europeans feel uneasy. They worry how technology, and climate change, and global competition, will reshape the world they know. And whether, in the future, this society will still work for them.
So our biggest challenge today is to help to rebuild people’s confidence in a fair and prosperous future. And all of us – including business – have our part to play in that.
Every business, by the way it treats its employees, affects people’s sense of well-being and self-worth. Every business, with the tax it pays, can help us afford a strong safety net and modern infrastructure. Every business makes choices that can protect our climate – or harm it.
So when I hear people say that we need our businesses to be European champions, I completely agree. It’s just that being a champion, in these challenging times, has to mean more than just waving a European flag. It has to mean doing your bit to help build a better, more secure, more prosperous, more sustainable society.
Competition and European champions
And we can’t build those champions by undermining competition. We can’t build them with mergers that harm competition, or by looking the other way when Europe’s businesses break our rules.
Less competition in Europe would mean that Europeans – businesses and consumers – would pay more, for less choice and less innovative products. Our competition rules are in place to ensure that European companies can compete on their merits. Without facing excessive prices for their essential inputs because of anticompetitive mergers, cartels, or unfair trading terms imposed by monopolies. Without being undercut by subsidised rivals. As you well know, businesses do best when they can compete on a level playing field.
I sometimes come across the argument that since global competition is not taking place on a level playing field, we should respond by limiting competition in Europe. But that is not the right answer.
It is true that a level playing field requires more than competition enforcement in Europe. We also want fair competition globally. That is why we are working to strengthen World Trade Organisation rules on subsidies and why we have started a dialogue with China about subsidies and fair competition.
We also need a rulebook that reflects the values on which our society is built and keep us secure. EU Member States and the European Parliament has agreed on a framework to screen foreign direct investment that affects our security and public order.
And we need to make good use of the tools that we have already. For instance, we need to apply our trade defence instruments to maintain fair competition worldwide. And we need to make full use of the flexibility on our common public procurement rules in place, which allow a buyer to reject an offer which is unrealistically cheap or to include many other criteria than price.
But the European Parliament and the Member States should also make progress on the Commissions proposal to create an international procurement instrument so that third countries cannot rely on access to our public procurement markets at the same time as they deny us access to theirs. Once adopted, it will strengthen our leverage in trade negotiations with third countries to make reciprocity a reality.
All the things I just mentioned are part of the common rulebook that underpin our internal market. The fundamental strength of our internal market is its size. When the market spans all of Europe, it means there is plenty of room for our companies to grow strong enough at home to take on the world, without harming competition in the process.
We see that in our daily work with merger control. As long as we’re satisfied that consumers won’t suffer, we can approve even the biggest mergers – like Peugeot’s takeover of Opel, or the merger between the world’s two largest brewers, AB InBev and SABMiller. In fact, in nearly thirty years of the EU merger rules, we’ve approved more than 6,000 deals – and blocked just 27.
And competition is good for businesses, as well as individuals. It keeps prices down, and innovation strong, for the things companies buy – things like steel, or communications, or container shipping. It means Europe’s best companies – the ones that know best how to innovate and serve customers well – have the chance to succeed. And those are just the companies we need, to compete against the best in the world.
Jobs and skills
But what matters, in the end, is not just that our companies succeed in that contest. What matters is whether their success makes Europe even better for its people. Whether, for instance, they create good jobs here in Europe, with decent conditions. And whether they help Europeans develop the skills they need, to make the most of those opportunities.
Unemployment in Europe is down to the levels it was at before the crisis. But youth unemployment is still far too high. For many young people, their first experience of the job market is one of defeated ambitions, and wasted talents.
But businesses can help them develop the skills they need, with apprenticeships that combine practical experience with qualifications they can take with them anywhere. In the last five years, almost three hundred organisations have pledged support for our European Alliance for Apprenticeships – including more than thirty German businesses. But we still need more companies to step in, as champions of the future of Europe’s young people.
Protecting the climate
And securing that future also means doing their bit to protect our climate.
Not every company runs a plant that produces greenhouse gases. But every business can make an effort to tackle climate change.
For instance, about a quarter of Europe’s carbon emissions come from transport – so changes like Deutsche Post DHL’s decision to switch its 70,000 delivery vans to run on renewable electricity can make a huge contribution.
And though the insights we get from data can help us save resources, handling data also has a cost for our climate. The world’s data centres already match the airline industry for carbon emissions. So as data becomes vital for a growing range of businesses, we all need to think what we can do to keep those emissions down.
And those emissions are just a tiny part of the way that digital technology is changing our world. No one can say for sure what technology will look like in ten or twenty years. But as long as we have the right rules in place to protect our fundamental values –like fairness, and transparency, and equal treatment – we can be confident that our rights and freedoms will be safe.
That’s why I’ve asked three experts to advise me on how a digital economy will affect consumers – and how our competition rules should respond. It’s why we’ve collected more than a hundred contributions, from different sides of this debate, to guide our reflections on the future of competition – and why, at a conference in Brussels next week, we’ll discuss those issues with experts from across the world of technology. Of course, the challenges that come with digitisation go far beyond competition policy. And the recent data breach in Germany is a powerful reminder thereof.
Businesses also have their part to play in making technology work for society. They can explain, simply and clearly, how they plan to use our data – instead of burying consumers under endless pages of privacy policies. They can make sure they keep that data secure. They can use artificial intelligence transparently and ethically – so computers don’t learn our human habits of prejudice and discrimination.
Paying a fair share of tax
And above all, businesses can help to support the investments that our societies need to make. Building the infrastructure that our economy needs to grow. Supporting the education systems that are the foundation of our future.
No company can truthfully call itself a European champion, unless it pays its fair share of the taxes that support those services.
And as more and more business moves online, we need to make sure that digital companies, too, pay their fair share of tax. Right now, the effective tax rate that digital businesses pay is less than half that of their offline rivals. That’s why we’ve put forward proposals to make sure digital companies pay their fair share of tax – and I’m glad the Romanian presidency of the Council is committed to help move those proposals forward.
Doing well by doing good
But in the end, being a true champion isn’t just good for society - it’s good for business too.
It helps build a stable society, with the confidence that allows consumers to spend, and businesses to invest.
It helps build a better reputation. Eight out of ten Europeans say they’re interested in whether companies act responsibly. But only just over half believe that business has a positive influence on society. So acting responsibly can really help a business stand out from the competition.
And it can make a company more competitive, too. A workforce that’s treated fairly will respond in kind, with the commitment and creativity that businesses need. Taking the lead in tackling climate change or building ethical technology can help Europe’s businesses get ahead of the curve.
So being a true European champion is not just the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing.
Because the success of European business can never be built at the expense of Europe’s people – their rights and freedoms, their confidence that the market serves their needs, their trust in a secure future, with good jobs and strong safety nets.
In these challenging times, we all stand or fall together. And the businesses, big or small, that understand that – and live up to their responsibilities – are the champions Europe needs today.