Entrepreneur turned politician Krišjānis Kariņš has always believed that politics has a critical role to play in Europe’s business environment: it can either foster or hinder the growth of European entrepreneurs and their chances of going international. UNITEE interviewed the Latvian MEP from EPP Group on his views on sustainable entrepreneurship, SMEs and international trade.
With a long-standing background in Latvian politics, what motivated you to pursue European politics?
I was a small entrepreneur before I got into politics and my belief behind being a politician back then was very idealistic: to help to improve the business environment in my country. During my term as Latvia’s Minister of Economy, it became more and more apparent to me that the business environment in my country is very dependent on the business environment in Europe as a whole.
This is why I decided to become part of the European Parliament. European politics is an extension of what I have been doing back in Latvia and my desire to influence for the better.
Latvia has recently assumed the European Union presidency, with competitiveness and growth, the Digital Agenda and EU as a global actor as its key priorities. What are your expectations for this six-month chairmanship of your country?
Our country’s presidency comes at a very interesting time because it is also the beginning of the new Commission. It is very important for this presidency to help set the tone that hopefully next presidencies would follow in the coming five years.
The presidency’s main theme seems to go back to the basics of the Single Market: the Digital Agenda, but it is also the movement of goods and services. We still do not have a true single market. Instead of putting up more immigration and trade barriers, we need to dismantle existing barriers.
And the tone that we need to set in the Parliament is implementation, to ensure that this goal and our priorities are truly dealt with.
One of the European Parliament’s focus this year is EU climate action. As member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, what are the recent developments regarding this matter? Do you think the EU can take the lead in global climate talks through innovation?
We have a big challenge not only in Europe but around the world. On the one hand, we have the reality of climate change and the damage done to the environment through the burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand, we need industrial, technological and economic development to create more jobs, improve the standards of living of people, etc.
For many, this is a crossroad: either you are for jobs or you are for the environment. The challenge is to find the right balance, how we can emit less CO2 which is good for the environment, our children and future generations, and at the same time ensure that we still have a vibrant economy in Europe that does not rule out industry.
Europe is already taking the lead in climate talks, but other big economies are not following. Many of them believe the economy comes first, climate second. Europe believes that these two can very well go hand in hand. Innovation is providing the way.
But not all Member States are similar in this regard, as most innovation in renewable energy and the efficiency are done up North. Also, many European businesses have not yet realised that they could gain more profit just by investing in a more energy-efficient and sustainable business model. This is more than just a pro bono activity.
How can energy-efficiency and sustainability be better translated into European SMEs?
The problem with politicians is that many of us imagine that we drive industry, when in fact industry drives itself. All that we can do is create the framework and the ecosystem for industry to prosper. It is a question of what kind of incentives we can create for businesses. Politicians either create or destroy ecosystems for businesses to prosper. If we want to help SMEs, we must reduce barriers in trade between Member States.
If companies were to get rewarded for doing something as simple as insulating the building they are using, or using more fuel-efficient vehicles for transportation, this reward system is also how we can foster more energy-efficient and sustainable SMEs.
What is the role of the EU in supporting SMEs to use digital technologies in order to be more innovative, competitive and environment-friendly?
The main role of the EU would be to do everything we can to reduce barriers of trade between Member States. We have concrete legislation on data protection dating back to 1995, but technologies have changed since then and issues on privacy have increased, creating legal uncertainty for SMEs who create applications. Creating legal certainty is a big prerequisite for creating a successful digital ecosystem.
We need one regulation for the 28 Member States. This the biggest difference between the Europe and the US. The US has a coherent single internal market. It has its challenges, but those 320 million people are more or less united in one market. We have on paper a much bigger 500 million market, but in reality this market is divided into 28 pieces.
UNITEE represents entrepreneurs and business professionals with a migrant background, New Europeans, who mostly own SMEs. They are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking and for having strong business connections in their country of origin. How can Europe better take advantage of this asset?
When economic times are tough, there will always be politicians who find scapegoats. Unfortunately, the now rising radical right in several Member States is defining immigration as one of the culprits to why there is a crisis in Europe.
It will be a challenge for Europe in the coming years to keep this protectionist streak down. It is very instinctive for humans to be protectionist, but it is not healthy for us to be that way when it comes to immigration and trade.
Member States should realise that New European communities often have different ideas and think outside the box, and thus bring plenty to the table.
As member of the Delegation for relations with the United States, what for you are the benefits of TTIP to European SMEs and international trade?
Europe has a market of 500 million, the US has a market 320 million. Combined, that is about one third of world trade. If Europe pulls itself together, and the US moves towards Europe, we can ensure a worldwide trade system that adheres to the values of open competition, and the values to fair courts and the rule of law.
For clever SMEs who are in the kind of business or have the kind of experience to understand how to expand their business in Europe, if they can have access to the US market, they can double the size of their business without doing more.
Are there disadvantages?
I simply do not see any disadvantages. We have a lot of unfounded fears, especially with regards to GMOs, but these are issues that are not even tackled by TTIP. The problem is misinformation, not a lack of information, about the partnership.