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Businesses can't afford to ignore the opportunities Europe can offer


Jim Nicholson MEP

Jim Nicholson MEP

Jim Nicholson MEP

Businesses in Northern Ireland are currently operating in a difficult economic climate at both European and international level.

Our economies are inter-dependent and interlinked and as such, policies pursued at a European level affect us all, either directly or indirectly.

Currently, the Europe 2020 strategy is the cornerstone of economic policy being pursued at EU level. Central to its aims are ensuring better access for young people to the workplace, modernising our digital agenda, developing a more energy efficient Europe and, crucially, building an innovation union.

The remit of research, innovation and science touches on nearly every aspect of our lives. European Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn has responsibility for the operation of the seventh EU Research and Technological Framework Programme 2007-2013 (FP7). Incredibly, this programme constitutes the largest publicly-funded research programme in the world.

Its scope is broad, encompassing a range of different policy areas including agriculture, fisheries and food, health, transport, energy, information communications and technologies, climate change and industrial and environmental services among others.

If we look at this investment in practical terms, FP7 supports, for example, public private partnerships which seek to bring more innovative medicines into the marketplace, build the next generation of cleaner aircraft, replace petrol engines and make our buildings more energy efficient.

Organisations from Northern Ireland are currently involved in 110 FP7 grant agreements. This is good news for our local economy and generates many positive news stories, such as the University of Ulster who are currently leading a project Euromedicat, with a €3m (£2.6m) contribution, helping to ensure drugs used in pregnancy are safe.

Bombardier also continues to have a strong and successful involvement within the Commission's European Research Programmes.

In my opinion, the future of FP7 looks bright. Despite financial restraints, last June the European Commission proposed a budget of €80bn (£69bn) for the period of 2014-2020, on top of the current €55bn (£47.5bn) pledge.

The Commission has also promised to give visibility to the importance of entrepreneurship by developing a headline indicator for the EU on fast growing, innovative companies - many of which we see in Northern Ireland today.

This is based on analysis that Europe is not effective enough at supporting the development and growth of new companies. It is an objective of the Europe 2020 Strategy that EU member states should be spending 3% of GDP on supporting research, innovation and science activity. This is a very encouraging prospect and indicates the willingness of the Commission and the Parliament to support businesses of all sizes.

It was for this reason that I recently hosted a business breakfast with Northern Ireland's business community, representatives from higher education institutions and the third sector.

I wanted to highlight the opportunities available from the EU but also give advice on how to access and successfully draw down funding.

I was delighted that Malcolm Harbour MEP, chairman of the European Parliament's Internal Market committee, came to give the key note address and overwhelmed at the turnout from stakeholders, who were genuinely interested in accessing the opportunities made available by Europe.

The European Parliament and the Commission are dedicated to supporting business throughout Europe, not just in terms of research, but also with regards to entrepreneurship.

I am passionate about helping Northern Ireland's economy to grow.

My door is always open to organisations who are interested in exploring these opportunities.

Jim Nicholson is an MEP and member of the Ulster Unionist Party