Interview | Wednesday, 04 February 2009

The face of European business

CHARLOT ZAHRA speaks to Ernest-Antoine Selliere, President of Business Europe, about the challenges facing the European business community in the wake of the global economic slowdown and its effect on Malta

I met Ernest-Antoine Selliere at the premises of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry (MCCEI) shortly after he had taken part in a discussion organised by the Today Public Policy Institute and the French Embassy in Malta about “Enterprise, Europe and The Crisis”.
Selliere, who has been President of Business Europe since 2005, has presided over the transformation of the organisation which represents entrepreneurs all across Europe into Business Europe, the Confederation of European Business.
His visit to Malta came at a very strategic time for the MCCEI, which had just sealed the merger between the Malta Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise (COC) and the Malta Federation of Industry (FOI) with the appointment of Helga Ellul as the first MCCEI President.
“Business Europe was set up in 1958, just at the beginning of the European Union construction process. It was called UNICE at the time, which is a French word which means ‘Union of Industry of the European Community,” Selliere explained.
Following the chaos and disruption of the Second World War, there was the need for a period of re-construction and co-operation in economic development throughout the continent.
One aspect of this co-operation, he said, was the founding in 1949 of the “Conseil des Fédérations Industrielles d’Europe” (CIFE).
Within this organisational framework, the “Union des Industries des pays de la Communauté européenne”, begun by the national industrial federations from the six member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, initially to monitor this community.
“It was a natural evolution for this body to become the “Union des Industries de la Communauté européenne” (UNICE) in March 1958, to track the political consequences of the community created by the Treaty of Rome,” Selliere told Business Today.
The six countries of this first European Community were all represented by the eight founder-member federations – the BDI and BDA (Germany), the CNPF (France), Confindustria (Italy), the FEDIL (Luxembourg), the FIB (Belgium), the VNO and FKPCWV (the Netherlands).
The Federation of Greek Industries was also accepted as an associate member.
In 2008 there were 40 members from 34 countries, including the European Union countries, the European Economic Area countries, and some central end Eastern European countries. The MCCEI has reaffirmed its membership into Business Europe.
It was also last year that UNICE was transformed into Business Europe. Asked to explain the rationale behind this name-change, Selliere explained that the new name explained better how the organisation’s work had evolved over the past few years
“I changed the name to call it “Business Europe” so that one understands that it is an organisation which has three objectives,” Selliere told Business Today.
“These are: lobbying on behalf of the European business organisations on all the matters that are dealt with in the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council on business matters; to fuel social dialogue with the trade unions at the European level; and to intervene in the key strategic issues of the European construction,” he insisted.
Asked whether the role of Business Europe had changed significantly over the years in view of the globalisation of the business market, Selliere said that Business Europe had become an indispensable part of the social dialogue with EU institutions and beyond.
“More and more than ever, Business Europe is seen as essential in the Brussels institutions because we bring the common ideas of the business of the 27 countries, which is close to 20 million companies all across Europe.
“I think that in globalisation, our counterparts in the world: the United States, Japan, Brazil, Russia, India, China are looking more and more to have a European voice and not have 27 national expressions,” Selliere said.
Elaborating on Business Europe’s proposals to assist the European business community, especially in view of the fact that the eurozone is facing a recession, Selliere explained that they had two main objectives.
“Firstly, we have to ensure that the normal financial conditions are found again for European business, which means distribution of credit, which is absolutely key,” he told Business Today.
“Then we are all in favour of governments producing those rescue plans in order to ensure that the economies start again after the very strong crisis that we started facing in 2008,” he added.
Selliere said that there were two main sectors of the euro zone economies that have been hit most harshly as a result of the recession. “I believe that the sectors that being hurt the most are construction industries and everything linked to construction, and all that is linked to automotive,” the President of Business Europe said, adding that there were various countries that that were suffering more heavily as a result of the recession in the eurozone.
“Today Spain and Ireland, for instance, are two countries which are badly hit by the economic crisis,” Selliere told Business Today.
Asked about what actions should European governments take to assist businesses that are facing reduced demand and increased competition as a result of the economic recession, the President of Business Europe gave a telegraphic response.
“Well, everything that is able to relaunch confidence in the economy and make it possible for companies to invest more for the future is something which will help everyone to come out of the economic crisis,” he replied.
However, Selliere said that Business Europe “believes more in helping investment than in helping consumption in the countries”.
According to the President of Business Europe, it would take a whole year before the eurozone started coming out of the economic recession.
“Well, we believe the eurozone will be seeing the first light at the end of the tunnel at mid-2009, and that we will probably need six more months in order to start again with the perspective of growth and job,” he told Business Today.
Asked about Business Europe’s position on the Working Time Directive, especially after the European Parliament threw out the opt-out clause, Selliere left the door open for an agreement with European trade unions about the matter.
“Well, it’s a very specific matter which is difficult to answer in a nutshell, but we believe that a common attitude towards working time is a normal social objective in Europe,” he told Business Today.
“But we also believe that the competitiveness of our national industries must be protected,” Selliere insisted.
In Malta, both unions and employers agree on the retention of the opt-out clause since they argue that Maltese workers should be free to work overtime hours if they choose to do so since the wages in Malta were quite low when compared to other European Union Member States.
Selliere lavished praise on Malta and the Maltese business community when questioned as to how they compared to the rest of the EU.
“We believe that Malta has been a very remarkable Member of the European Union,” he told Business Today. “Firstly, because it was able to adopt very quickly the euro, and secondly because it is showing a lot of resistance to the crisis with a sane and safe banking system, which is, in itself, quite remarkable.
“Up to now, it has a growth perspective which does not make it likely that it needs to launch a rescue plan. I think Maltese citizens, up to now, have been quite happy not having to face the crisis with too many consequences,” Selliere told Business Today.
When asked for his advice for Maltese businesses to able to adapt to an ever-changing economic scenario, the President of Business Europe had two pieces of advice.
“Well, watch very closely what is happening in the Maltese economy, and step in immediately if necessary, but refrain from too much intervention from the state,” he told Business Today.
Among the common complaints that both Maltese and European businessmen faced, there was red tape, excessive bureaucracy and problem of access to financing.
Asked whether, in his view, that governments across Europe were doing enough to alleviate these problems, the President of Business Europe did not mince his words.
“I think that they are not doing as much as we need. All those problems are to be dealt with much more energy that has been done up till now.”
Finally, on the state of preparedness of European businessmen for the challenges that the global economic slowdown had brought on the economies of Europe and the whole world, Selliere was confident that they well-prepared to face the music.
“Yes, I think European businessmen have been extremely trained in the world of competition, and for that reason are able to adapt their companies to the needs of the coming times of globalisation,” he told Business Today.
“By all means, European businessmen have no need to have complexes about their ability to manage,” Selliere concluded.


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04 February 2009

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