Sarah Gordon - 15 May 2014

At most times, Brussels can seem far removed from the hurly-burly of Europe’s commercial life. But the 1,500 participants, from policy-makers to chief executives, at this year’s European Business Summit at the Palais d’Egmont, seem keen to get some practical and urgent messages across to each other.

“It’s time for business to speak out louder for Europe, to speak out in terms of supporting the European project,” said outgoing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso at the summit’s opening session yesterday evening.

Mr Barroso challenged business leaders to “come out of your comfort zone” and explain why Europe was good for them. Without ownership of the European project “at all levels”, he argued, Europe risked improving economically, whilst deteriorating politically.

He said action by business was particularly important given the impending European elections next week, and the high levels of unemployment in Europewhich were fueling extremism and populism. Emma Marcegaglia, president of lobby group BusinessEurope, and recently appointed chair of Italian oil and gas group Eni, agreed that the priority for business and the European Commission should be addressing the “shameful paradox” of high unemployment co-existing with unfilled vacancies.

The need to address the skills gap was a theme other business leaders emphasised. Nani Beccalli-Falco, head of GE Europe, which employs 90,000 people in the region, said a Europe-wide apprenticeship scheme was needed. He also argued that entrepreneurship in the region needed more support. Europe, he pointed out, attracted just $4bn a year in venture capital funding, compared to $20bn in the US.

Mr Beccalli and Ms Marcegaglia were among many other business voices drumming home the need to take action on a now-familiar concern to the European C-suite – the loss of energy competitiveness vis-à-vis the US, and the need for a more pro-active energy policy.

Mr Beccalli put it bluntly. “We need shale gas.”

Both policy makers and business leaders at the Palais d’Egmont agreed on the need for better “marketing” of European integration and that stronger arguments needed to be got across on issues such as the proposed TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the US.

Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs said the agreement could have been better communicated to the public.

“It was a mistake to start negotiations on trade with the US without a clear European mandate,” he said.

Ms Marcegaglia said TTIP would be good for Europe’s workers as well as its companies. “A good TTIP means new growth, new jobs,” she said.

There was a certain amount of self-congratulation in the Palais d’Egmont that the nay-sayers on the eurozone and its single currency at the peak of the financial crisis had been proved wrong. It is time, said Mr Barroso, to “turn the page on the intellectual glamour of pessimism.”

But business leaders were forthright about the challenges ahead. Europe may be recovering, said Ms Marcegaglia, but while “Europe is walking.. the rest of the world is running.”

Read the original article on FT.com: http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2014/05/business-vents-its-frustration-at-europes-slow-recovery/