The Malta Independent 21 May 2019, Tuesday

To remain economic power, EU needs to stick together - European Chambers of Commerce chief

Kevin Schembri Orland Wednesday, 13 March 2019, 09:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

In order to remain viable as an economic power, the EU needs to stick together, President of The Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (EUROCHAMBRES) Christoph Leitl told The Malta Independent.

The Malta Chamber of Commerce is today organising the Maltese Parliament of Enterprises, which will offer the opportunity to Malta's Business Leaders to address Parliament and voice their concerns to the country's highest institution.

During an interview with the Malta Independent, Leitl explains that the slogan of EUROCHAMBRES’ European election publication is ‘Moving forward together’. “The alternative is going backward separately, and Chambers certainly do not consider this a viable option. If the EU doesn’t stick together and work efficiently, we won’t be able to tackle effectively big issues I mentioned before.”

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During the interview, Leitl was asked whether he is concerned with the rise of more hard-line political parties in Europe, and the kind of effect this could have, as well as the importance of the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections. Leitl said that populism, which is a source of concern for many, is defined as ‘support for the concerns of ordinary people’. “I argue that our mainstream politicians also need to be populist; they must demonstrate that they understand the concerns of the general public. If they allow hard-line parties to corner the market for populism, Europe will be in grave trouble, both socially and economically.”

“This is one of the reasons why May’s European elections are so important and why Chambers are so active in promoting a positive, ambitious EU agenda. We need MEPs for the next five years who share this vision, who believe in the EU and who will represent its 450 million citizens in a constructive manner.”

 

Realistically, what kind of impact will Brexit have on EU based businesses, and will it be easier for them to recover than their British counterparts?

We mustn’t forget that Brexit hasn’t even happened yet, so it is more a question of adaptation than recovery for many businesses in the EU27 and the UK.

If a deal is reached, the initial effect would be minimal. But if the UK crashes out of the EU at the end of March, the effect of Brexit would be immediate and dramatic. Frictionless, zero tariff trade between the EU and the UK would end overnight. The United Kingdom would be treated as a third country by the European Union.

Consider, for example, that many smaller businesses which only operate in the EU may never have completed a customs procedure. Those that import from or export to the UK would have to learn fast, or diversify away from UK activities.

 

What kind of effect will Brexit have on the smaller EU states like Malta?

Malta has strong economic relations with the UK, so its businesses are more exposed to the negative effect of Brexit than in many other EU member states. EUROCHAMBRES’ annual Economic Survey of entrepreneurs across Europe from last October revealed that Brexit was not, overall, considered to be among the top 3 challenges for the year ahead among the 50.000 respondents.

The figure for Malta was more than double the total average, but even here, Brexit was only ranked 5th among the challenges, well behind issues like skills shortages and labour costs. This underlines my view that we cannot allow Brexit to distract the EU from key issues, including skills, but also the circular economy, energy, international trade and digitalisation.

 

There have been calls for the EU to reform itself and change from its current form. What should Europe morph into?

Calls for EU reform are as predictable as good weather in Malta! These calls became louder after the UK referendum. But Brexit has also had a galvanizing effect, with EU popularity rising. We need to build on this and demonstrate to citizens that their optimism is well-placed.

French President Macron recently stated that Europe is not just a market, it’s a project. But at the same time, the Single Market helps turn the intangible concept of Europe into a tangible reality for citizens. This is why Chambers believe that the completion of the Single Market should be at the core of the future of Europe debate, not on the periphery.

 

There are concerns of an ageing population in Europe. Is this the case and if yes, what needs to be done to address this issue from a business standpoint?

If we if we don’t want that demographic change compromises our future living standards, we need to look beyond the current workforce: we need to look at children and young people and make sure that they are equipped with the transversal skills they need to succeed in the labour market and to adapt throughout their professional life. Cooperation between the business and the education worlds is extremely important. Another crucial aspect in today’s ageing Europe is the effective economic integration of migrants and refugees. To support SMEs in this complex and resource-intensive process, I have been advocating an Integration Grant for SMEs.

 

What is the importance of such events like the Maltese Parliament of Enterprises?

This is a very important and very timely event with the European elections just two months away. We have now organised five editions of the European Parliament of Enterprises, bringing entrepreneurs from across Europe to the Brussels hemicycle to debate and vote on key EU issues for the business community. The Maltese Parliament of Enterprises will provide a similar opportunity. Putting entrepreneurs in politicians’ shoes and opening a debate on matters that directly interest them is beneficial for both parties. I’m really delighted to be here.

 

This interview was conducted prior to last night’s Brexit vote in the British Parliament

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