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Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

SME internationalisation beyond the EU

Global markets are an important source of growth for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, only 600,000 SMEs employing roughly 6 million people export goods outside the EU. Increasing the internationalisation of SMEs and helping them access third markets is crucial for Europe’s competitiveness, economic growth and innovation. The European Commission's priority is to ensure that enterprises can rely on a business-friendly environment and make the most out of growth markets outside the EU.

Benefits of internationalisation

Why should SMEs expand their business beyond the EU?

  • an estimated 90% of global growth will originate outside the EU in the coming years
  • developing and emerging markets are expected to account for 60% of world GDP by 2030
  • given increased market integration, SMEs can play an important role in global value chains

A Eurobarometer survey (2015) showed that about half of SMEs in the EU were involved in international business outside the internal market from 2012 to 2015. Complicated administrative procedures, high delivery costs and identifying business partners were indicated as the major barriers for exporting.

Commission actions

The 2008 Small Business Act and its ‘access to markets’ principle is a strong foundation of the European SME internationalisation policy. A number of studies were conducted to understand the problems SMEs face when going international and to help them overcome these challenges - see studies on internationalisation.

The Competitiveness for Small and Medium Enterprises (COSME) Programme and SME support actions funded under the Horizon 2020 programme were instrumental in helping SMEs develop their presence in international markets.

We help SMEs expand outside the EU by promoting clusters and networks for SME internationalisation, rationalising new activities in priority markets and leveraging existing EU external policies. See the regularly updated mapping of EU instruments aiding internationalisation of European businesses.

Our new SME strategy has underlined the importance of harnessing benefits of global markets. As part of its key actions, the Commission will

  • continue to enhance SMEs’ access to third country markets including through dedicated SME chapters of new free trade agreements, dialogues to exchange good practices with trade partners and a new information portal
  • facilitate SME access to trade defence instruments
  • provide support by addressing queries of SMEs linked to the implementation of free trade agreements through EU delegations
  • extend the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Global mentoring scheme

Bilateral SME policy dialogues

The Commission also established SME policy dialogues bilaterally (USA, China, Korea, etc.) and multilaterally (EU-MED Cooperation, Eastern Partnership). These dialogues aim to align the policy framework for SMEs across borders and discuss best practices for SME policy.

For example, at regular SME workshops with the US participants from both sides share their expertise in promoting SME development. These workshops also serve as an opportunity to expand export to each other's markets. The latest workshop took place in September 2019 in Little Rock (Arkansas, USA).

An SME policy dialogue with the Republic of Korea was launched in February 2019. The first meeting held in Seoul provided for an in-depth discussion about each other's SME policy framework and measures. It particularly focused on start-ups and innovation ecosystems, instruments to improve access to finance for SMEs and start-ups, as well as ongoing internationalisation efforts.

Support tools

See support for SME internationalisation available to companies that want to go international.