Where is Europe’s Steve Jobs? That was the question posed earlier this week to a panel of MEPs representing the largest political parties in the European Parliament at an event organised in Brussels by Debating Europe and the European Youth Forum.
Unemployment is going to be one of the key issues in the upcoming European Parliament elections in May, and our panel of MEPs was asked to explain how their parties planned to bring down sky-high youth unemployment rates across the Union.
One of the issues raised was youth entrepreneurship and whether it should be a priority for EU policy-makers. Gabriel, one of our readers, had some thoughts on this matter:
I unsuccessfully tried to create a business. I had big plans, big hopes, but was totally unprepared for the realities… Looking back on it now, I was destined to fail at that attempt (because of an unrealistic market analysis, among other flaws). It would have been different if I had help from an experienced entrepreneur, which I encourage would-be entrepreneurs to seek!
[...] If I had to suggest something, it would be a way – outside of expensive business ‘schools’ – to help new entrepreneurs to develop realistic business plans without the risk of having their ideas stolen!
To get a reaction, we took Gabriel’s comment to David Tennenhouse, Vice President of Technology Policy at Microsoft. His response seemed to highlight a difference in attitudes between the US and Europe, with Tennenhouse arguing that Gabriel should not consider his first attempt a failure:
We also took Gabriel’s comment to Maria Da Graça Carvalho, a Portuguese MEP who sits with the Centre-Right European People’s Party in the European Parliament. She responded very positively to Gabriel’s suggestion of “twinning” entrepreneurs with more established mentors, and said that this idea was in fact already being adopted by the EU:
I think that’s a very good idea. Actually, I’m one of the rapporteurs on Horizon 2020 – the EU’s Programme for Research and Innovation – and I know we have already included this idea of ‘twinning’ as a component of that. We will put together experienced universities, start-ups and SMEs with organisations or people that have less experience, and that helps a lot. It will really help the less-experienced partners not only to set up their company, but also to internationalise, to apply for European funds, and to carry out some joint-ventures together with their more experience ‘twin’. So, that’s a really good idea from Gabriel.
Similar to Tennenhouse, she also agreed that Europeans need to change their attitude toward “failed” entrepreneurs:
We also need to change the overall attitude in Europe toward risk. We are, in general, a society that is too adverse to risk and failure. And to start a business you have to run some risks, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are not successful first time, you might be the second time… We need to cultivate more of a spirit of entrepreneurship in Europe, because this is going to be essential for growth and jobs.
Not everybody agrees. During our event on Tuesday, Mary Honeyball, a British MEP who sits with the PES party of Social Democrats in the European Parliament, argued that
I think that’s an American myth, actually. I’m not sure that true at all, though they like us to believe it. I think it’s very tough starting a business, and it’s not something that most people want to do, so we shouldn’t place too much reliance on it. I think [...] young people could be encouraged to do it if they wish to, but it’s not really going to solve anything. And we talk a lot about Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and how they’re really going to save the economy [but] essentially they’re not. They’re very important [but] there’s just not enough of them – they don’t occupy enough of our economies in any European country to really make the difference.
I think they’re great and we should encourage them, but they’re ultimately not going to be a solution to the economic problems… The solution lies in those companies – and indeed the public sector – where most people are employed.
Phil Bennion, an MEP with the British Liberal Democrats who also spoke at our event, disputed Honeyball’s statistics (and, indeed, European Commission figures suggest that 99% of all European businesses are SMEs and they account for almost 70% of total employment in Europe). Still, is it a mistake to rely too much on entrepreneurship as the panacea for Europe’s economic woes?
If you agree with any of the MEP reactions published here, then you can show your public support in our Debating Europe Vote 2014, that lets you show who YOU support in the European Parliament elections in May 2014.
JJ, another of our readers, wrote in to offer some ideas he thought the EU should consider in order to encourage more entrepreneurs:
I’d say the safety net put in place in some countries does seem to give people a bit too much comfort in unemployment when otherwise you would be required to set up a business to get by if you couldn’t find a job [but] I’m not sure we’d want that to change in the EU. The regulatory environment in some countries also seems daunting, though I suspect it is probably not as extreme as often portrayed (whilst still being enough to put some people off).
Education may help, in terms of teaching those in school how to set up a business. I’m in favour of some sort of programme that [would require] some – if not all – students to set up a company during their studies (regardless of whether it trades or not).
We put JJ’s comment to Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who sits with the ALDE Party of Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament. She thought there was a lot the EU could do in this area, and argued that if the EU wants to see a European Steve Jobs, it first needs to develop a European “Silicon Valley”:
What do YOU think? Where is Europe’s Steve Jobs? Are young Europeans too scared of risk and failure to make successful entrepreneurs? Should the EU develop a European “Silicon Valley”? Or is the solution to the economic crisis going to come from large, established companies that employ a lot of people? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.