Last updated on
Shoes from Spain, Italy and Portugal can simply be imported in euros. Photo: interior of Torfs shop in Borsbeek. © Torfs
In this series, we are giving people the opportunity to demonstrate the positive impact of the EU, and doing so for each of the 6 priorities of the current European Commission. Today part 2: An economy that works for people. With this topic, the EU is aiming to ensure an attractive investment climate and growth that creates quality jobs, especially for young people and small businesses.
Wouter Torfs. © Torfs
The economy is an extremely important topic for the EU. After all, the Single Market is at the heart of the European project. Enabling the free movement of capital, goods, services and people creates additional opportunities for European business. The consumer, in turn, benefits from a wider choice and lower prices.
Retail chains – known as the retail sector – are an important element of that economy. They act as an intermediary between thousands of producers and millions of consumers. With 8.6% of all jobs and 4.5% of added value, retail is the second-largest service sector in the EU after financial services.
Wouter Torfs – CEO of the eponymous chain of shoe stores – is an established name in Belgian retail. He currently has 78 shops in the Flemish part of the country, 2 in Wallonia. His online store is active throughout the country. He affirms the great importance of the EU to his business activities.
Lira, pesetas and escudos
‘Obviously, the EU has made our job much easier,’ says Torfs. ‘I still remember the time before the euro, before 2002. Then we would import shoes in lira, pesetas and escudos (ed.: the former currencies of Italy, Spain and Portugal), with all the risks of a fluctuating exchange rate that this entailed. We were lucky that the southern currencies often lost value against the Belgian franc, but it could just as easily have been the other way around.’
‘The EU also makes a world of difference in terms of customs and import regulations. We used to really need an agency to take care of all those formalities for us. And that, of course, brought with it additional costs. At the moment, it's effectively super-easy to send goods across the Union without many formalities. It's also much simpler today to open a shop somewhere.’
Even with physical shops, an online shop remains indispensable.
But are free transport and returns really necessary? © Torfs
The EU has developed specific measures to support the retail sector. For example, it wants to offer more flexible regulations for opening hours, promotions and suchlike. It is also supporting the small retail sector in keeping up with the rapid evolutions in electronic commerce.
And Wouter Torfs has a suggestion there. ‘The big players in e-commerce invariably offer free transport and return shipping. As a smaller player, we have to go along with that. But that's not easy for us, and it has serious effects on traffic and the environment. Everybody knows the semi-loaded white vans that drive up and down a street 5 times a day to deliver packages. The EU should make that transport chargeable so it's the same for every company. That may not yet offer a solution for parcels from China and the US, but if it were to happen within the EU first, that would be a great gain.'
SMEs in the EU: essential for the national economies
Schoenen Torfs belongs to one of Belgium's larger companies, but ‘small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SMEs), as they are known, are not forgotten in EU policy. Moreover, there are special programmes geared entirely to these valuable innovators.
SMEs are defined by the European Commission as companies with fewer than 250 employees. The turnover is less than or equal to 50 million euros, or they have a balance sheet total of no more than 43 million euros. And if you know that the EU has no fewer than 22.6 million of these small and medium-sized enterprises in 2021, then you understand that SMEs are of vital importance to the European Single Market.
Our country is also feeling the impact of its SME landscape. The number of Belgian SMEs active in the non-financial business economy was estimated at 604,643 in 2018. Behind that large number of companies, there are of course a lot of jobs.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the EU has a strong focus on these SMEs. For example, COSME, the EU Competitiveness Programme for SMEs, makes it easier for SMEs to access guarantees, loans and equity capital.
SMEs also drive innovation. After all, small and medium-sized enterprises have a major impact on the development of new technology. That is why Horizon 2020, the best-known and largest EU programme for research and innovation, includes a tool for highly innovative SMEs. They can receive up to 2.5 million euros for business support and guidance.
Extra attention was and is being paid to SMEs during the Covid crisis too. For example, the European Commission recently approved a special Belgian state aid scheme worth 200 million euros to support SMEs. And previously, 1 billion euros from the European Fund for Strategic Investments had already been earmarked as a guarantee for the European Investment Fund. The aim: to encourage local banks and lenders to provide liquidity to at least 100,000 SMEs in the EU.
The examples above are just some of the ways in which the EU seeks to support SMEs. A more complete overview can be found here.