Tajani banks on green growth for EU industry

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The “green economy” will be at the heart of the EU’s new industrial policy, according to Antonio Tajani, who has been nominated to the position of European commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship. Tajani will prioritise tourism, innovation and access to finance for SMEs in a bid to kick-start growth.

Addressing MEPs at his confirmation hearing in Strasbourg, Tajani said Europe will emerge from this period of restructuring on a more sustainable industrial track fuelled by innovation. 

“The green economy is at the heart of the new industrial policy. Europe must become world leaders in the field of eco-efficiency, eco-design, technologies, production processes, products and innovation services,” he said. 

A new industrial policy, to be published later this year, will be drafted in the context of the EU ‘2020’ plan due to be finalised in the coming months. This will also link in with a proposed new innovation action plan, which Tajani revealed will not be ready “until the summer months”. It had been expected by April. 

The Italian commissioner, who ran the EU executive’s transport policy under the first Barroso Commission, highlighted the importance of protecting small businesses and pledged to work closely with the European Investment Bank (EIB) to get funds flowing to the ailing SME sector. 

He said he wants to ensure that the €30 billion earmarked by the EIB for smaller firms reaches companies in need. “There’s a risk that we’ll have €30 billion sitting in banks not being used by SMEs. They can’t wait, they need it now,” he said, adding that he wanted to tap into other sources of Community funding to support businesses. 

The Small Business Act (SBA) and its ‘Think Small First’ principle will be at the core of Tajani’s efforts to make life easier for new businesses, particularly when it comes to cutting red tape, leveraging the internal market and expanding into new markets. 

Electronic billing will cut the administrative burden placed on businesses, and implementing an effective policy on competitive “clusters” will also feature. 

Entrepreneurs take centre stage 

Tajani, who will serve as a vice-president of the Commission if he is confirmed by the European Parliament, emphasised his commitment to encouraging entrepreneurship, particularly among women. 

His portfolio has been renamed to put entrepreneurs in the spotlight as Brussels attempts to inject dynamism into a traditionally risk-averse business culture. 

However, Tajani was also quick to stress the need to assist larger industries restructure in response to the “deep and painful consequences” of the economic crisis. “It is clear that the industry must manage its own restructuring. However, the EU can and should play a guiding role in coordinating this, as foreseen by the Treaties,” he said. 

The Italian also spoke at length about the new powers he will have under the Treaty to develop the tourism sector. This area, he said, could be a source of growth and jobs for regions where heavy industry has relocated to countries outside Europe. 

MEPs push for more concrete plans 

Galloping through a broad range of issues including chemicals, toys and safety standards, Tajani was pressed on a host of practical policy concerns, including the implementation of the REACH regulation on chemicals. 

He was arguably most comfortable when returning to familiar territory that overlapped with transport policy – the future of car production, small auto suppliers and electric cars. 

Much of Tajani’s address listed key elements of the work programme he will inherit from outgoing Enterprise Commissioner Günter Verheugen, and he was accused of being too general in some of his remarks. In the second half of his three-and-a-half-hour grilling, MEPs asked whether he could offer more concrete details of his plans, rather than simply repeating Barroso’s broad goals. 

Liberal German MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis accused Tajani of mastering the art of “talking without saying anything,” a sentiment echoed by a number of other MEPs. 

A similar tone was struck by UK Conservative MEP Giles Chichester, who welcomed the nominee’s supportive comments regarding SMEs but added “we need a bit more than warm words”. 

Tajani rejected the criticism, insisting he had made a number of concrete commitments and would bring forward a number of communications in the coming year. 

Italian conservative MEP Lara Comi disagreed with the critics, thanking the commissioner-designate for offering one of the most concrete sets of priorities the Parliament had heard during the hearings. 

Tajani, himself a former MEP, assured MEPs that he would launch an ambitious programme to create jobs by making Europe more dynamic. 

Outgoing Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani takes over the industry portfolio at a time when momentum is gathering behind policy efforts aimed at jump-starting Europe's entrepreneurial spirit. 

His predecessor, Günter Verheugen, published the Small Business Act in 2008, the implementation of which will form the basis for Tajani's mandate. 

The Italian will run the Commission's renamed Directorate-General for Industry and Entrepreneurship. A number of dossiers have been lost to other commissioners – such as pharmaceuticals, which have gone to the new health commissioner – leaving SMEs at the core of Tajani's daily work. 

Getting cash flowing to businesses, making it easier to expand into new markets, fostering cross-border entrepreneurship and cutting red tape will all be on the agenda. 

His services have also been drafting a new European innovation strategy, so Tajani's interaction with newly-installed Innovation Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will be watched with interest. 

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