For those unfamiliar with Accountancy Europe, could you briefly explain what your organisation does in general and in particular to support EU SMEs?
Accountancy Europe unites 50 professional accountancy associations from 35 countries that in total represent 1 million qualified accountants, auditors and advisers from across Europe. They work in different settings – some in large companies, others in the public sector and many thousands work as small and medium-sized practitioners (SMPs), each of whom service hundreds of SME clients. Accountants are SMEs’ trusted advisers. They support and advise SME clients throughout their entire business life cycle, and have the expertise and experience to do so thanks to their qualifications and their many SME clients.
Accountancy Europe supports these SMPs and SME accountants in their work helping SMEs deal with various risks and business challenges. Automation is one of the big challenges faced both by SMEs and their accountants, who are seeing the traditional work of accountants, such as bookkeeping and preparing financial reports, disappearing.
We and our members, therefore, see SME accountants expanding into areas of business advice and risk management, which will benefit both them and their clients. According to the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), SMEs increasingly demand such services from their accountants. Accountancy Europe’s work draws on the expertise of our SMP members to issue practical guidance and checklists to support SME accountants’ work in such areas as insolvency, sustainability risk management, and digital transition. We also inform our SMP members of key EU policy changes that might affect their SME clients. Finally, we bring the perspectives of SMEs and our SMP members to EU policymakers.
What is your impression of the EUIPO’s SME programme and the role it plays in supporting SMEs?
The EUIPO’s SME programme is an impactful and valuable initiative that addresses a concrete need of SMEs. Intellectual property (IP) offers important benefits for SMEs, and in turn IP is crucial for the EU economy to promote innovation among Europe’s SMEs. However, it is not always easy for SMEs to deal with IP matters. Many are even unaware of the benefits IP protection can bring or how to access their IP rights. SMEs need support to find specialists and get financing to help with IP-related costs. The EUIPO’s SME programme addresses all these key areas. We also appreciate the EUIPO drawing on the expertise of, and collaborating with, different SME ecosystem representatives, such as accountants, banks, SME associations and others. Each party brings their own specific perspectives that together can lead to a holistic approach. Accountancy Europe is proud to be part of this programme and we look forward to continued collaboration.
The EUIPO and Accountancy Europe signed a collaboration agreement in which we jointly pledged to support SMEs and make them aware of the importance of the usage of IP. How would you sum up our first year of collaboration and what we have achieved in this respect?
So far, we have already managed to increase awareness on the benefits of IP for SMEs among our SME accountant members. In addition, we have demonstrated to the EUIPO that accountants are key partners in helping them reach as many SMEs as possible. One of the results of our collaboration is the EUIPO’s new training programme to help train SME advisers on IP. We are delighted that the EUIPO sees the potential in training the advisers, rather than only SMEs themselves. Many SME owners necessarily focus on the day-to-day running of their business to keep it afloat. Protecting their IP might not even have crossed their minds, and even if it has they might not have the slightest idea of how to go about it. This is where we see a key role for SME accountants!
The EUIPO SME Scoreboard states that accountants are the go-to people for business advice. Still, only 9 % of SMEs own their IP despite studies showing that IP rights have a 68 % higher revenue per employee. Are accountants aware of the importance of IP to manage risks for an SME?
Some accountants are already aware, others less so. It also depends on the traditional role of the accountant in each country. This is one of the main reasons behind our joint collaboration. Typically, accountants are trained in auditing, bookkeeping, financial reporting and tax matters. As some of this ‘conventional’ work becomes more automated, the demand for business advice from SMEs is growing (see the IFAC link above). With their traditional skill sets, accountants can help fulfil SMEs’ demand for reliable business advice, but they must steer their business towards these areas. This is the direction we encourage our members to take, which includes helping their clients protect their businesses. We see IP specifically as one of the key tools that will help build SMEs’ overall business resilience. Healthy clients are also essential for accountants’ own business models.
Johan Barros, Manager for SME strategy at Accountancy Europe
'We see intellectual property specifically as one of the key tools that will help build SMEs’ overall business resilience. Healthy clients are also essential for accountants’ own business models.'
As accountants work closely with their clients’ businesses, do you think the support they receive through initiatives such as the SME Fund is beneficial to them? Are there other approaches to help EU businesses grow and flourish?
Any financial support for SMEs in this area is most welcome. IP is a very specialised area of law and legal advice is expensive. Any preliminary financial support to help SMEs identify elements worth protecting, and then to help them protect that IP, will be the key. This is especially relevant in a post-COVID-19 environment, where many SMEs will continue to struggle for their own business survival.
In the future, apart from financial support, any support for SMEs to monitor and identify potential infringements would be of great help. In addition, helping SMEs to enforce their IP rights, especially when the potential infringer operates outside of the EU, will enable more SMEs to see the tangible benefits of IP.
IP protection also supports the EU’s own priorities on green and digital transitions. A lot of the innovation on sustainability, for example, will come from SMEs. Protecting their IP in these strategic areas will bolster their innovation and contribute to the EU’s goal to reduce carbon emissions.
Many SMEs are willing to embrace the road towards sustainable transition, but they will need practical help – and not only with IP-related issues. For example, Accountancy Europe has proposed to the European Commission that a free pan-EU carbon footprint calculator tool for SMEs be set up. This, along with similar tools to help SMEs assess their environmental impact and digital maturity as well as the identification of various risks, would be helpful.
Lastly, what is in store for Accountancy Europe over the coming years and what synergies do you hope to achieve with the EUIPO SME programme?
We have already issued several practical guides and publications to help SMEs and their accountants deal with different business risks. We plan to look into other areas of SME risk management, especially around sustainability, supply chains, digitalisation and cyber risks. The overall aim is to equip our SME accountant members with insights that will help them promote sustainability and digitalisation of business models for their SME clients.
All of these areas have IP implications as well. We hope to continue collaborating with the EUIPO to raise awareness on how IP protection can build overall risk resilience and help SMEs in their digital and sustainable transitions.