EXCLUSIVE: EU Commission to focus environmental efforts on SMEs says Potocnik

Small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) will be one of the European Commission's top priorities in its effort to reduce resource consumption and the EU's environmental impact, says the European Commissioner for Environment.

Talking to edie at Green Week in Brussels today, Janez Potocnik said that it was essential to focus much of the European Commission’s attention on SMEs because “they are the drivers of our development”.

When questioned whether the EU Commission is providing enough incentive to help SMEs lower their environmental impact, the Commissioner said that it was focusing a large portion of EU budget on SMEs through the structural and cohesion funds.

The funds finance activities and support projects related to energy or transport as long as they clearly present a benefit to the environment, such as energy efficiency, use of renewable energy, developing rail transport, supporting intermodality or strengthening public transport.

Combined, the two funds amount to 35% of the EU’s planned expenditure between 2007 and 2013 and is the second largest item of EU expenditure after the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

“With the cohesion policy we have focused on SMEs, so SMEs will be one of the few priorities which we want the member states to address,” stressed Potocnik.

He also said that innovation would be a key focus of Commission funding to help drive growth in a sustainable way.

“We basically condense a much higher amount of money and we very much shift from all new infrastructure building to more of the innovation side of the structural and cohesion funds, which is a major bulk of money we’re using from our budget,” he said.

According to the report, SMEs, Resource Efficiency and Green Markets, published last year, one in 10 SMEs receive EU support, while the rest get help through the private and public sectors.

“If we are providing support to one in 10 SMEs, I would say that that is not at all a small number because our budget is less than 1% of the EU’s GDP,” he said.

“I think we have to note that budgets of the member states are around 20-25% and of course we need to combine those efforts”.

However, Potocnik said he acknowledges that in difficult economic times support coming from the EU is the most stable because it is “protected money”.

Under the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the Commission’s spending plan between 2014 and 2020, the total proposed budget for competitiveness and SMEs stands at €2.4bn.

Yet to be finalised, the MFF aims to encourage greener agriculture and establish a more environment-conscious and internationally prominent Europe. According to the Commission, it will also create conditions for small businesses to flourish. “The EU is active in unlocking the growth potential of small businesses, including through the targeted use of the EU budget,” the Commission states.

Calling out those who are reluctant to switch to a green economy, Potocnik said that it is wrong to assume that “greening the economy” is costly and cumbersome.

“We are living in a world that in just 30 years, one generation, the additional people that will be on the planet by then equals the whole population at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of our resources are under stress. All our estimates are showing us that those resources will become even more under stress and the fact that estimates in 2030 say that we will globally be 40% short of water if we continue with business as usual.

“And 2030 is just around the corner. The next decades and century will be absolutely about resources – take my word. Looking at Europe, we have created an economy which is resource intensive. If we want to keep industry in Europe we have no alternative but to look at resource consumption. Dealing with this is absolutely cost efficient over the long-term. This is the future industrial policy of Europe and that is something we have to understand,” he added.

Leigh Stringer

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