Malta Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise President Louis Apap-Bologna speaks at Friday’s meeting for EU accession countries’ chamber of commerce presidents held at the Malta Chamber. In his address, Apap-Bologna speaks about the commerce chambers’ role as stimulators of enterprise and lists five strategic areas deserving attention
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to our historic premises today. This occasion is certainly one of extraordinary significance given that the Presidents of the Chambers of Commerce of almost all new accession countries to the EU are here to discuss our collective contribution in ensuring a smooth integration in the European Union for our members.
Only a few weeks ago, our Chamber was visited by the EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein responsible for the Internal Market, Customs Union and Taxation. On that occasion I replied to a statement which Commissioner Bolkestein had made in one of his recent speeches when he said that accession countries might be tempted to (I quote) “rest on their laurels and slow down market reforms”.…”having achieved the coveted prize of EU membership after more than a decade of hard work”.
I seized that opportunity to assure the rest of Europe through Commissioner Bolkestein that the private sector in Malta was and is not resting. Our meeting in Malta today is testament to the fact that all our organisations representing the accession countries are thoroughly committed to work, collaborate and contribute to a smooth integration in the European Union for our members.
Indeed, I am certain that, over the past decade and beyond we have all striven hard to convince our members that they would be net gainers if our respective countries joined the European Union. In a few weeks from now, all our countries will make the giant step. The time has come, therefore, to prove ourselves right for the benefit of our countries and our entrepreneurs.
Over the past months, our Chamber has strengthened the Malta Business Bureau which is the EU research diffusion and policy-making arm of the Malta Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise and the Malta Federation of Industry. The Malta Business Bureau (MBB) operates an office in Brussels and another in this building. Since it was jointly established by the Chamber and Federation in 1996, the MBB has built a strong administrative and technical capacity as well as acquiring the necessary and invaluable contacts in Brussels. These building blocks now enable us to offer the ultimate professional service to the local entrepreneur. Furthermore, the Bureau has now recruited three new technical experts who have recently been engaged to complement the Director General.
The MBB has just moved to new and bigger premises in the administrative heart of Brussels. In a few weeks time, in fact, we plan to officially inaugurate our new La Vallette Business Centre in Avenue d’Auderghem. Our Chamber has operated from a different base in Brussels since 1996 and we have found it crucial to our members to be physically present in the Belgian capital where decisions and developments which affect us are continuously taking place. I would like to take this opportunity to invite you, if you have not yet established any presence in Brussels, to consider joining us and avail yourselves of a golden opportunity to make use of our new premises in Brussels. In doing so, we would be joining our forces together to our best advantage vis-à-vis the European Union. We firmly believe that with the right guidance, our business communities can go a long way in establishing themselves successfully as a true force within the single market particularly if the right niches are discovered and pursued appropriately. We strongly believe that only if members are well informed, as well as through effective lobbying, shall they be able to experience a smooth and successful transition into the EU. This ties in closely with our joint declaration that our Chambers shall pool in their efforts and limited resources to assist members in their knowledge on how to operate in the internal market.
Eurochambres also plays a central role in this regard. After this morning’s discussions, I would simply like to add that as from first May, we – as Chambers from new member states - have an important responsibility within Eurochambres. We must work together with existing Member States to increase Eurochambres' profile in Brussels. We can only achieve this if we can mobilise our best human resources within the Chamber movement so that we can react to policy papers and positions which are elaborated from time to time. The most recent initiative which we welcome relates to the Financial Perspectives 2007-2013. We should also be pro-active to enhance the quality of the General Assembly and the Plenary Sessions so that there is more policy-input in the debate. If Eurochambres wants to be the most powerful business lobby in Brussels, then we have to strive together to raise the quality of the policy input. The Malta Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise will be more active on this front.
The smooth transition into the single market which we are striving for is secured through work and ensuring that our respective countries are competitive. I am the national representative on the Enterprise Policy Group within the Commission’s DG Enterprise. The terms of reference of this working group is strongly linked to the EU’s Lisbon Agenda and the related goal to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. The aim of the Enterprise Policy Group, in turn, largely complements that of our business organisations and the very objective of our meeting today.
Just as in the Enterprise Policy Group, our common objective here today is to ensure the implementation of policy measures that are conducive for a smooth and lucrative business environment. We must ensure that the right environment and the necessary mechanisms are in place to guarantee that the most active entrepreneurs will make a big success of full integration in the EU’s Internal Market sooner rather than later.
Our task today is therefore complementary to that of the Group established within the Commission’s DG Enterprise. It is our duty to provide advice on policy priorities, highlight problems, identify possible solutions and ascertain whether or not an idea can work in practice.
In the case of the Malta Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise, we strive to maintain regular and direct contact with our members through meetings, surveys, correspondence and other means. In fact, we encourage our members to network amongst themselves and to keep in touch with our secretariat as much as possible so that other members can learn from their experiences and, in the process, render our country more efficient and competitive. In a similar vein, it is up to us here as Presidents of Chambers belonging to the new EU member states to exchange such information. We must learn from each other to simplify our path towards a smooth accession. For this reason, we should encourage an efficient flow of transfer of information between our organisations and exchange of best practice.
Allow me to make a brief reference to the “European Agenda for Entrepreneurship” which was presented by the European Commission on 2 March, “Entrepreneurship Day”. This plan is most relevant to the realities facing our country. I am sure that most of these realities are facing the business communities in the countries represented around this table. In essence, the plan focuses on five strategic areas which deserve our close attention. These are:
• Changing the way society looks at entrepreneurs
• Creating the conditions to encourage more people to become entrepreneurs
• Allowing SMEs and entrepreneurs to play a full role in driving growth and enabling them to remain competitive
• Improving the flow of finance to SMEs and entrepreneurs
• Creating a more SME-friendly regulatory and administrative framework
I outlined these points of action within the context that we are entering an economic bloc where entrepreneurial potential is largely untapped; only five in 1,000 Europeans earn a living from their own business compared to the US where entrepreneurs are twice as numerous. American start-ups are smaller than in Europe, but after two years, more and more stable jobs are created. Clearly, business creation in Europe needs to be dynamised.
Besides the matters I have already mentioned, our role today is also to stimulate further trade integration between our countries. EU membership of our respective countries shall take trade co-operation to another level as we shall trade within free and unfettered conditions.
I think I am not the only one to voice preoccupation that growth in intra-Community trade has been slowing down in recent years as the economies of individual member states are turning increasingly inwards. This is not good news for a country like Malta that thrives on international trade. Indeed, our economic performance and wealth creation depends on finding the appropriate customers within the European market and beyond in which to trade our goods and services. We also depend on the European Union for the attraction of foreign direct investment inflows. The Maltese business community has always backed EU membership for our country because we have constantly perceived the European Union as a catalyst for free and unfettered trade between the 15 EU member states and now also with the 10 new countries who shall take their place in the Union in a few weeks’ time. All 25 member states must work to inspire and support each other to ensure quick success for the new members and the entire European Union. However, we believe that this requires existing and new Member States to work closely together and avoid action that could put fresh obstacles in the way which would squander the promised benefits.