Athens, 28 September 2019
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here with you today and I would like to thank Mr. Ohoven for taking this initiative. I think it is extremely important that we have such opportunities to gather together and share ideas about fostering more efficient synergies between the public and private sectors in the common interest of our citizens and of our common house, Europe.
This event demonstrates once again the close cooperation and the strong ties between Germany and Greece – as countries, economies and societies. At the same time, it also shows the potential to expand, deepen and strengthen this cooperation even further in the business sector, in particular small and medium sized companies.
And what better opportunity than this one today to reflect on it, as you represent the very heart of the German economy. It is the “Mittelstand” that accounts for the largest share of the country’s economic output, occupies the majority of employees, and contributes significantly to the corporate tax revenues in Germany.
This applies equally to Greece. Small and Medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, play a significant role, generating around 85% of employment. In particular, micro firms are the mainstay of the Greek economy providing a remarkable almost 6 out of 10 jobs, compared with the EU average of 3 out of 10 jobs.
The small and medium sized companies are also the backbone of the European economy, representing over 99% of all businesses in the EU. In the past five years alone, they have created around 85% of new jobs and provided two-thirds of the total private sector employment in the EU.
Through the European Single Market - one of the EU’s greatest achievements - companies can benefit from huge opportunities in the internal market but also to use the best qualified workforce from all over Europe.
SMEs and entrepreneurship are key to ensuring economic growth, innovation, job creation and also social integration in the EU. These companies are the real economic force!
I know well the difficulties you are facing including the geopolitical instabilities that may impact your activities as well as the tough competitive pressure and sometimes bureaucratic handicaps.
A clear political vision that provides vital boost is an imperative if we wish to increase the efficiency of SMEs.
This is why the EU supports them practically and tangibly, aiming at increasing their sustainable growth and the creation of new jobs by removing obstacles to investment, providing visibility and technical assistance to investment projects and making smarter use of financial resources.
Through the Investment Plan for Europe - the so-called Juncker Plan, a characteristic and prosperous initiative of the European Commission - the Greek SMEs but also the economy as a whole have benefitted enormously. Greece is the top beneficiary of the Juncker plan relative to its GDP.
The total financing under the Juncker Plan in Greece amounts to €2.7 billion and is set to trigger €12.1 billion in additional investments. In particular, the total financing for SMEs amounts to €434 million and they are set to trigger approximately €4.8 billion in investments with more than 25,000 SMEs and mid-cap companies in Greece expected to benefit from improved access to finance.
The previous years, Greece had to make enormous efforts but now all these efforts have produced results.
After 10 difficult years for Greek citizens, Greece is back on track. The new government and the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has already provided positive signs regarding the future progress of the country. The EU will continue to stand by the side of Greece and the Greek government. With the support of the Juncker Plan, small and medium-sized enterprises get a new impulse, can grow and innovate, which results in the creation of new jobs and opportunities.
The role of small and medium sized companies extends even beyond the economy. Indeed, they represent society itself.
As Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, dealing with two of the biggest challenges that the EU has had to face in the past few years – migration and security - I have experienced first-hand over the last five years their importance and added value of addressing these challenges.
In the area of migration, SMEs can and do play an enormous role to facilitate inclusion and integration of legally staying migrants and refugees. As you all know, effective participation in the labour market remains a challenge for too many migrants across the EU. Refugees are confronted with additional difficulties in entering the labour market.
The inclusion of refugees and other migrants into the labour market as early as possible is key to ensure their effective integration into the society and their positive impact on the EU economy.
I have followed carefully and with great interest, a few months ago, the discussions in Germany on a new migration package, aiming, along other objectives, to attract and retain a qualified workforce from third countries.
Businesses can play a critical role in the labour market integration of migrants and are the first ones who can benefit from the skills and competences they bring with them. SMEs in particular can offer a favourable environment for migrants to integrate.
For example: the programme “Willkommenslotsen” from the Zentralverband des Deutschen Handwerks (ZDH) in Germany, Germany’s Association of Crafts, is focused on matching small to medium enterprises with young refugees.
There are many experiences across the EU of small and medium enterprises successfully integrating migrants in their workforce. I want to make these experiences more visible and to inspire others to follow the example.
This is why, in May 2017, we launched the initiative "Employers together for integration" to provide visibility to employers active in the area of integration in Europe. Several employers of different size have since joined the initiative.
In December 2017, the Commission signed a European Partnership for Integration with EU-wide employers' organizations, trade unions and other social and economic partners to work more closely together to promote the integration of refugees into the labour market.
More generally, the EU also promotes labour market integration across the EU, and supports Member States through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Several transnational projects are giving the opportunity to different players in the labour market to work together to promote integration.
I mentioned earlier the two big challenges of my portfolio. Migration and the question of integration is one. Security is another.
In the wake of several terrorist attacks in Europe, we have had to completely change our paradigm of cooperation, to become more resilient, pre-emptive and to better protect our citizens.
As the world is evolving, so is everything connected to it, including the different types of security threats facing our societies. Threats that in the past were easily identifiable have nowadays been succeeded by new evolving and elusive threats, which know no borders and no nation.
The online world has been the most significant battleground for action. During the last few years, we have created collaborative intelligence, and we have seen many bigger and smaller internet companies cooperating to prevent the dissemination of terrorist online content.
Getting all internet companies on board in our common fight is the cornerstone of our efforts towards tackling terrorism online. Therefore, in 2015, I personally took the initiative to establish the EU Internet Forum, which has in turn been an inspiration for the Global Internet Forum.
The aim was very specific: to defeat Da’esh on the internet as it was being defeated on the ground. Via the EU Internet Forum, we developed synergies with major online companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft and also smaller companies.
However, it is the smaller companies that are essential in joining our endeavours. Terrorists do not choose their channels by turnover or number of employees but by where they are allowed to disseminate their destructive messages most easily and quickly. This is why we want to engage with and support also smaller internet companies to remove terrorist content.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Looking back at the last five years, as I have mentioned earlier, we were confronted with a plethora of challenges in Europe: the financial crisis, the migration crisis, terrorist attacks, Brexit, the continuous climate change and ultimately, which for me represents the biggest threat for Europe, the worrying rise of populism and nationalism. If populists continue gaining ground they will revert Europe to its dark past. And this is our duty today to stop them from moving ahead. Otherwise, we shall not be anymore the privileged generation not to have lived a war. And this is the strong signal that we should send to everybody in Europe.
I can tell you that things have not always been easy and frequently required determined and bold actions on our side. But I was firmly dedicated from day one to finding sustainable and fair solutions for all, adhering to the EU values: the respect for democracy, human rights and dignity, equality, freedom and the rule of law.
These are lessons that we have drawn from our history and we need to defend what was inherited to us by the wise people that created this unique achievement in European history. And these are also my personal values that I have pursued throughout my whole political career.
Our work could not have been pushed forward without the involvement of all actors, including the private sector and businesses. We need to think global but act local!
It is you who are the viable link between government, the economy and our citizens.
I know that we here today share the same values and this is a safeguard for future successful progress and the creation of an attractive and thriving socio-economic environment for the next generations. An environment that we can guarantee through peace, stability and freedom and we will continue building on the values upon which the European project is built.
Together we can ensure that Europe remains a safe and prosperous place and at the same time a competitive player in the world!
Thank you very much for your attention.