Setting up legally-binding quotas regarding access for small and medium-sized enterprises to public procurement "no longer corresponds to our vision today", Novelli told reporters on 25 January, after presenting the EU's Enterprise Commissioner Günter Verheugen with France's proposals for a "European Small Business Act".
The idea of reserving a certain share of public tenders for SMEs originates from the US Small Business Act (SBA) of 1953, which requires each public administration to allocate at least 23% of its purchases to small companies. During his presidential campaign, France's Nicolas Sarkozy supported introducing a similar measure in Europe as a means of increasing opportunities for small businesses, which account for roughly 70% of EU jobs and GDP.
But his plans got the cold shoulder from more liberal-minded nations within the bloc that are against any form of state intervention in this field. The measure would also contradict a multilateral agreement on public procurement (Agreement on Government Procurement or GPA) concluded between the EU and 27 other countries, which commits governments to opening up their public tenders to international competition.
However, France points to the fact that several parties to the pact, including a number of Europe's major trading partners, have obtained derogations allowing them to favour their domestic companies in awarding contracts. It thus wants the European Commission to negotiate a similar clause for European companies.
"We maintain our demand for an exemption clause, so that European SMEs are put on an equal footing compared to American, Canadian, Japanese or Korean companies," stressed Novelli.
He further backed the Commission's proposal to push for further market opening in these countries by insisting on more "reciprocity". "We should establish a system where are own public markets are punctually less open to foreign companies based in countries where public markets are closed," he said.
Speaking to MEPs last week, Andrea Benassi, secretary general of the Association of European Crafts, Trades and SMEs, insisted that small businesses would "not settle for anything less than a legally binding act providing a solid basis for SME policy in the coming years".
According to the group, the EU must clear the "asymmetry" created by the GPA, either by obtaining an abolition of other countries' exemptions or by obtaining a similar exclusion. If it fails to do this, it adds: "UEAPME expects the EU to make a 'reciprocity declaration', stating that only those countries that give European SMEs access to their tenders will be granted access to EU-tenders."
The Commission is expected to present its proposals for a Small Business Act in March this year.