Business groups put positive spin on Europe crisis

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With the European news agenda dominated by doom and gloom, EU business associations sought to underline the positives at their annual Brussels event.

This year's Euroconference, held on 15 May, brought together familiar faces in the small world of Brussels-based EU trade associations.
The crisis is sparing no-one and business associations themselves have to live through difficult times, compounded by the twin challenges of austerity at home and strong competition from overseas.
But most speakers at the event said Europe could seize the opportunity to emerge stronger from the crisis.
Economists from the Bruegel think tank and the European Commission pointed to how well the austerity programmes had been implemented to date in Ireland, Portugal and Greece. Economic growth, while sluggish – if not negative – in most parts of Europe, continues to storm ahead in Germany and countries like Poland.
Moreover, the European Central Bank has proved a capable firefighter in the crisis, increasing its assets to flush the economy with liquidity.
Political leadership on the other hand has been weak, most speakers agreed.

Thérèse De Liedekerke, managing director at BusinessEurope, the EU employers' organisation, said the public sector could help turn Europe's economic fortunes by investing more in infrastructure, education and transport. She called for pushing further trade liberalisation deals, saying a North Atlantic free trade area that cut tariffs by 10% could deliver an incremental GDP growth of 0.2% and more than 400,000 new jobs.

Liedekerke said Europe's businesses continue to support the "flexicurity" model on the job market while placing an even greater emphasis on innovation, which could soon be bolstered if Europeans finalise their tentative agreement on an EU-wide community patent.

Karl Cox, vice president at US ICT firm Oracle, and vice chair of the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, pointed to European strengths such as its well-educated workforce, good access to higher education, a strong and generally reliable public sector plus a diversity of people that contributes to many more innovative solutions in areas such as software than emerge from China or Japan.

Services represent 70% of GDP within Europe but only 30% of exports, Cox noted. Emerging markets are on the move and European industry needs both to recruit more skilled migrants and trade while investing more in emerging markets.

Erika Mann, director of EU Affairs at social media giant Facebook, described how in a few years her company had expanded rapidly across Europe, despite a patchwork of different data protection rules and regulations.

Many dynamic small and medium-sized European companies were growing businesses using Facebook as a platform, she said. Europe still faces challenges, especially in expanding globally from within the EU, but she agreed with AmChamEU that Europe's near neighbours offered great opportunities – especially in the arc stretching from Morocco to Turkey.

Dr. Guntram Wolff of Brussels economic think-tank Bruegel, also saw challenges in expanding European ICT companies overseas but felt there were ample options to reform the EU's budget in support of growth policies, despite inertia in the decision-making processes and vested interests in areas such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Many companies join EU-wide business associations in a bid to make sure that their voices are heard in the Brussels policymaking arena.

But recent years have seen industry federations face increased competition from individual companies in influencing the EU policymaking process.

PA companies are yet to fully find their place in Europe's post-crisis economic landscape, with many firms having cut non-essential expenditure in a bid to slash costs and recover from the turmoil of the recession.

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