The 2013/02/19 at 07:51
Marie Luginsland, in Germany
“The European internal market is our domestic market.” This is the point by which Olivier Joris justifies the urgency of the situation. As recalled by the Head of the European Department of the FEB (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique or Federation of Belgian Businesses), 85 % of the Belgian GDP stems from exports, and 72 % of these exports go towards the European market. Little wonder that Belgian enterprises are keen on lifting the last obstacles barring their access to neighbouring markets.
This is not merely a matter of stabilising the economic context by strengthening the Eurozone, but also accelerating the execution of the European Commission’s recommendations and the application of various directives. Today, the daily reality is that for these enterprises, mainly active in the sector of semi-finished products, the internal market remains obstacle-ridden. A recent survey carried out by the FEB amongst its members points, in particular, towards disparities between member countries in current norms and standards. Olivier Joris thus cites the example of a Belgian smart-textile manufacturer who comes across different fire-safety standards in Belgium, Germany and France.
Without going as far as suspecting countries of protectionism, what seems clear is that national legislation and regulations complicate manufacturing processes, even obstructing the development of industrial activities. “The European Union may have the best possible texts but as long as their application is slowed down by increasingly numerous optional clauses, fragmentation will subsist within the European market,” observes Olivier Joris.
As well as the lack of standardisation in norms, Belgian companies deplore “the fragmentation in national regulations affecting the packaging, labelling and wrapping of products”. As Olivier Joris points out, the consequences of these “details” can be significant for production: “This complicates the lives of companies and forces them to produce special series for certain markets. This affects SMEs operating in niche domains as well as large groups acting on a pan-European scale.” He regrets “this reintroduction of obstacles that goes against the grain of European logic” at a time when the European Union has permitted the free circulation of goods, services, capital and persons.
Coherence and competitiveness
Belgian companies also point their fingers at VAT procedures. While the FEB does not contest the existence of different rates and different ceiling rates in different countries, it highlights the difficulties encountered by its members. “For our companies that work in the sector of semi-finished products, Belgium commonly represents a transit country bringing added value to a product. And this inexorably complicates procedures,” remarks Olivier Joris.
It is with the aim of putting an end to these growth-dampeners that the FEB is calling on European deputies “to lift the last obstacles to free circulation, to fill in the regulatory framework, and finally to harmonise national legislation or standards”.
In addition, Belgian companies are refusing to go it alone. They state their desire to see coherency reinforced in order to boost the European Union’s competitiveness. Coherency that they believe to be lacking in the climate domain. According to the FEB, “Belgian enterprise have already made substantial efforts in the European climate policy framework. But Europe is choosing to position itself as a leader in terms of climate without having the rest of the world follow. With all the negative consequences that this implies for European industry and its competitiveness.”
No to isolation
A champion in energy control, Europe is nevertheless a latecomer in the digital economy. This is one of the conclusions of the FEB survey: one-third of the Federation’s members note that there is no single market for e-commerce in Europe. “There remains a real gap between the real economy and the emergence of an e-economy because the European Union does not yet grant the right instruments to businesses,” confirms Olivier Joris.
The final aspect raised by Belgian businesses concerns obstacles regarding the mobility of persons and employment. “This is not just about recognising qualifications and degrees but also the portability of pensions for example within member states,” stresses the Head of the European Department of the FEB. He states that in this period of crisis, over 100,000 jobs nevertheless remain vacant and some metiers are suffering from a real shortage in labour.
A concluding comment comes from Pieter Timmermans, Chief Executive Officer of the FEB: “The impact of Europe on the daily lives of businesses is growing, and the latter in turn base strong expectations on the European Union. The FEB will be vigilant in seeing that the eighteen months separating us from the European elections bring signals and concrete solutions that businesses have the right to hope for. European enterprises have already made great progress but they cannot become an island.”