Last reviewed 27 September 2012

Eric Davies looks at a European Commission guide to funding for smaller businesses.

Introduction

European Union Support Programmes for SMEs: An Overview of the Main Funding Opportunities Available to European SMEs is a 23-page guide published by the European Commission. Last updated in January 2012, it gives brief details of EU funding programmes relevant to smaller businesses, with links to sources of further information.

Action plan

Access to finance is acknowledged as a major obstacle to the development of SMEs, with many having to depend on bank loans. A November 2011 survey found that only 63% of EU SMEs that applied for a bank loan received the full amount requested, with 17% getting less than they applied for, 11% of applications being rejected and 4% of companies turning down a loan offer because the conditions were unacceptable.

The funding guide is one of a number of measures proposed in a November 2011 Action Plan (COM(2011) 870), which is intended to help SMEs get easier access to finance.

Four themes

The guide, which does not claim to be comprehensive, is divided into four main sections.

Thematic funding opportunities

The European Commission’s Directorates General fund programmes in many areas, including environment, research and education. Funding generally requires projects to be sustainable, value-added and transnational. SMEs and others (including industrial groupings, business associations and business support providers) can usually apply direct. EU funding will usually be in the form of subsidies and will cover only part of a project’s costs.

Structural Funds

The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF) are collectively known as the Structural Funds. The ERDF and ESF offer SMEs the largest range of EU funding opportunities, with projects managed at national and regional level. Funding is provided to companies in the form of direct financial contributions to projects.

Financial instruments

SMEs can benefit from a range of financial instruments, most of which are managed by the European Investment Fund and are available via national financial intermediaries.

Support for the internationalisation of SMEs

Funding is available to organisations and/or public authorities to help SMEs access markets outside the EU. Examples include business centres established in China, India and Thailand to provide support services such as match-making and guidance on regulatory issues.

Enterprise Europe Network

The guide also points companies towards the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN). Bringing together the expertise of the Euro Info Centre (EIC) and Innovation Relay Centre (IRC) networks, created in 1987 and 1995 respectively, the EEN has about 600 offices located across some 50 countries inside and outside the EU, including China, Russia, South Korea and the USA.

Among its various enterprise-focused roles, the Network aims to provide companies with information about funding opportunities. It can evaluate a company's financial situation and suggest an appropriate source of financial support from the following three options.

  1. Venture capital and loans: seed, start-up and growth funding. EEN members can advise coach companies on how to sell a business plan to potential investors.

  2. Funding from regional, national or EU authorities, including grants for research and development, innovation, investment, consulting services, employment, training and exporting.

  3. Tax credits, covering areas such as research and development, investment and taking on new staff.

Further information

The full text of the guide can be accessed via the Commission’s Small Business Portal. In the section Obtaining funding, under General information on funding, select the link Guide to the main funding opportunities available to European SMEs.

Relevant information is also available on the Commission’s Public contracts and funding pages.

The main EEN website is at http://enterprise-europe-network.ec.europa.eu. It includes details of the UK EEN contact points .