Having represented the interests of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for four years, Ulrike Rabmer-Koller takes stock, in an interview with EURACTIV Germany, of her successes and discusses her ambitions in the fight against climate change.
Austrian businesswoman Ulrike Rabmer-Koller is the vice-president of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Austrian Business Federation, as well as the Managing Director of the Rabmer Group. For the past four years, she has also been the president of the European SME interest group SMEUnited and will step down in January 2020.
Ulrike Ramber-Koller spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Philipp Grüll.
After presiding SMEUnited for four years, you are now leaving. How do you feel?
Nostalgia. For four years, I have worked to restructure the organisation and, by representing the interests of SMEs – and right now, with implementation coming up, I am no longer around. But I am delighted with our great success since SMEs are back at the top of the European agenda.
On the SMEunited website, you wrote that Ursula von der Leyen had taken up your demands for an SME strategy. How did discussions with the Commission go to achieve this?
We have been calling for a European SME strategy for four years now. The result is that it is now featured in the new Commission’s programme. And yes, I assume that von der Leyen has adopted the strategy because we have presented it everywhere.
Do you see this as a personal success?
Yes, it is a great success for SMEunited, on which we have worked for four years.
Were there any failures?
Unfortunately, yes. There have always been setbacks. Although we have always strongly supported the “Think Small First” principle, many regulations have been adopted, which were particularly challenging for SMEs. One example is the General Data Protection Regulation.
What should the GDPR have looked like to ensure the needs of SMEs are better observed?
The regulation’s design led to its punitive measures massively affecting SMEs. Large companies could get things right quicker and made sure they were better prepared. But the small ones were overburdened by bureaucracy.
Before you worked at EU level, you represented Austrian businesses. By what were you particularly surprised by following your move to Brussels?
The legislative process is very different. You have to keep an eye on all the proceedings. Often, the Commission proposal looks great, but such a proposal can always change dramatically at a later stage. That is the main difference, compared to what goes on at the nation-state level.
It would seem that merely talking to the Commission is not enough – who are the other vital partners for representing European interests?
The European Parliament and the Council of the EU. One needs to speak to everyone. Although our first point of contact was the Commission, I also made use of the respective EU Council presidencies to get in touch with governments. We also had many appointments in the EU Parliament.
You have experienced many presidencies in recent years. Has there been a country that you remember in a particularly positive or negative light?
No, cooperation with each Presidency has been very good. For me, however, it was particularly easy with the Austrian Presidency, because I already knew many of the important decision-makers personally.
What is the role of changing parliamentary majorities in the EU Parliament? For example, now we have a strong Green group, which some think is not that connected to economic issues.
We are an impartial association and are in dialogue with all the players. I had many meetings with environmental and consumer protection organisations to clarify what it means for SMEs when a law, which focuses on large companies, is being approved. But of course, groups with an affinity for businesses in Parliament, such as the EPP and RENEW, are easier to deal with because they have a different understanding from the outset.
You have your own experiences as an entrepreneur in Austria. Are the challenges there comparable with those for SMEs throughout Europe?
Yes, there are national differences, but by and large, the topics are similar: globalisation, digitisation, climate and environmental protection. The lack of skilled workers is equally problematic also in countries like Sweden, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria.
Under your presidency, SMEunited focused on sustainability. What role can SMEs play in the European Green Deal?
I am convinced that SMEs are the key to achieving climate protection goals. We have many innovative companies that make a contribution to state-of-the-art technology – my own company, for example. And we can offer solutions.
But there is also the sheer multitude of companies. If each of them contributes, for example, through more efficient use of resources or renewable energies, we have a powerful positive effect. And not only when it comes to climate issues because climate protection measures such as investments in resources and energy efficiency usually also attract savings in costs.
But is this view widespread in Brussels? For example, do green MEPs accept that SMEs serve environmental protection?
Here we are trying to convince all stakeholders. Yesterday the co-president of the European Greens in the European Parliament, Ska Keller, was with us. What is important to us is the interaction between the economy and the environment, through incentives, not bans. Otherwise, we will drive out the economy and industry, and none of them will benefit from it. We need a win-win situation.
“Representation of interests” is usually called “lobbying”, which has a negative connotation in the German language. How do you deal with it?
I represent the interests of SMEs at the European level and talk to all stakeholders. For me, this is “lobbying”. But I deliberately prefer to use the term “representation of interests” rather than “lobbying”, because in German, unlike in English, there is this negative connotation.
What plans do you have for the time after your presidency?
I have a dynamic company at home. New innovations and new markets are coming our way. I’m sure I won’t get bored. I will remain Vice-President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and a member of the European Industrial Strategy Group.
And the issue of climate and environmental protection is very close to my heart, so I will continue to be involved in this area.
In an interview in 2016, you said that fortunately, you need little sleep. Does this mean that there will be no more sleep in the future?
(laughs) Oh, yes, just a little more.