NB: This piece first appeared in Progress in November 2017.
Britain should look to Macron, not Merkel, for the entrepreneurial future Europe needs, with or without Brexit, argues Alex Mitchell
Emmanuel Macron had an epic rise to the Élysée palace, changing the political system in which he operates. In a marked contrast with the rise of Donald Trump, he aggressively courted the centre of French politics. Instead of offering a return to a bygone era, he has embraced the future. When Trump cut off support for climate change research in the United States, Macron spoke – as a candidate to replace François Hollande – for the whole continent, inviting researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs to cross over the Atlantic. He did it in English, straight to camera – direct and sincere.
Since becoming president, he is making good on his promises. It has traditionally been quite tough to set up a new business in France, from banks being very risk adverse in funding startups, to the bureaucracy being extremely burdensome and difficult to navigate from an entrepreneur’s perspective. If you think we have red tape in Britain, just speak to a French founder! On the technology front, Macron has appointed a digital minister and the government is slowly introducing a number of business-friendly policies to facilitate growth.
Although Europe has a good record on startups, it struggles in relation to scale ups and would benefit from understanding how others accelerate their early stage businesses onto the next level. The United Kingdom has seen record numbers of startups over recent years and we are leading Europe in alternative finance, which attracts talent. Macron knows this and wants some of it for France.
Within the networks I am involved with in the UK, there are a large number of French nationals who have chosen to set up and run their businesses this side of the Channel. Brexit may adversely impact them – precipitating their return to France – and the British economy. Macron is ready to welcome them with open arms.
While Macron’s personal view on Brexit has been a little back and forth, the view from within the Élysée seems settled on the need for a softer Brexit and on the importance of trying to keep the UK engaged in some form. Macron himself has been on record saying that he feels the EU needs to reform and the door should be kept open for the UK.
Why is this important? In part because of the recognition in France for the need for mutual growth – when one of us grows, we all grow.
Jean-Bernard Tanqueray, a French national and founding chief executive of UK-based money-peasy.com, summed this up brilliantly: ‘Startups are bound to think globally from their outset. Thinking in a closed, small-world fashion is against their DNA. As such European startups need to know that Europe, as a whole, can offer them a reliable level playing field to roll out their innovation to then scale globally.’ This is what Macron’s videos in English promised business leaders. ‘Despite Brexit’, Tanqueray continues, ‘the UK and European countries must keep cooperating successfully together to ensure that their innovative startups may thrive globally and learn from one another. Refusing to do so would be the most economic adverse move in this upcoming ultra-connected, economy 3.0.’
For the past few years I have visited France on a number of occasions. Last month I was invited to join a business delegation to Paris to meet fellow founders, president Macron’s prime minister and cabinet, and see the way their startup ecosystem helps to foster entrepreneurship in the French capital.
Leading the delegation was Peter Ward, co-founder and chief executive of WAYN.com and co-founder of ICE, a networking group of technology leaders. The objective was to engender greater collaboration between the UK, French and continental European tech and business ecosystems, in the face of Brexit.
On his return, Ward said: ‘We wanted to lift our heads above the parapet to demonstrate our support and commitment to strengthening ties with our French and European counterparts. We believe that there has never been a greater time to collaborate and that by working together, we can be part of a rising tide that lifts all boats.’ Not only were they welcomed with open arms, there are now plans to meet Angela Merkel and German technology companies in Berlin next year to extend the initiative.
At the moment it seems that Macron, and his cabinet, are taking notice and the UK government is playing catch-up. If Macron can calibrate a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs, offer Britain a soft Brexit and behave like a high tide raises all European boats, is it not time the government stop grandstanding with Merkel and start collaborating with Macron?