Earlier last week I went to Brussels as part of a small delegation of UK based SME technology businesses on a trip hosted by techUK, our trade industry association and Coadec, the voice of UK tech startups in Europe.
The purpose of the trip was to meet with and represent the views of smaller businesses to MEPs and lobby groups, with the specific intention of explaining our concerns about how restrictive legislation coming out of Europe can impact on our own companies, potentially stifling innovation and growth.
The two key pieces of legislation which are of most concern are the imminent Single Digital Market, which is at an advanced stage of discussion and due to be voted on in early May, and a new regulation on Data Protection, which has been in negotiation for the last six years and which if implemented in its current form, could have a swingeing impact on how digital businesses will be able to operate in Europe.
There were a number of things which stood out for me from the trip which can be summarised as follows.
- Bureaucracy – politics and European politics in particular, is exceptionally complex. With 28 countries each with a broad spectrum of interests in each, many of which are parochial, decision making is both slow and often based on compromise. A good example of which is the aversion to any form of data collection and intelligence which is prevalent in German politics and largely a legacy from the abuse of citizen intelligence in the past.
- Under-representation from SMEs – the complexity of the political system in Europe works to the advantage of the larger corporates who have permanent lobby groups stationed in Brussels monitoring policy and intervening to support their own best interests.
- Many MEPs are aware that they are not hearing the voice of the SME and were very receptive to meeting our small delegation, however, as a group we lack a collective voice across Europe which is able to influence and shape policy. We were advised by a number of people that we met that whilst our opinion was valued, we need to focus both on a key simple message to get across and as well as on the people to whom we directed it.
- The other point which was made by non UK MEPs in particular, was that the UK is somewhat more advanced than other EU members in digital, and that our views would not necessarily be either understood or supported by our counterparts elsewhere. This probably makes the task of trying to bring technology based SME’s together under a common voice, that much more difficult.
- More interesting was that in a couple of instances, we encountered very strong animosity towards the major US technology giants. Whilst not wholly surprising, we need to be mindful that decision making is being coloured by some of the actions of these companies and that we are all being tarred with the same brush.
- Finally, returning to the speed and efficiency of the legislative process and its fit and relevance in today’s fast moving, rapidly changing business world. There’s much to be said about government adopting a more agile approach to legislating which is based on small incremental changes that are less disruptive and allow both the legislature as well as business to test and measure based on results.
Whether we are likely to see any of these changes is debatable.
In the meantime I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a data protection bill which doesn’t tie my business up in knots and additional costs, as that’s where we’re betting our future.