Call for EU state aid rules to flex for startups

European startups are calling for more flexibility in EU state aid rules to allow national governments to provide liquidity for the region’s fledgling digital businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

In a joint letter addressed to Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, more than a dozen startup associations from across the bloc have called for rules to be adapted to ensure digital businesses are not blocked from receiving any emergency state aid.

In March the Commission applied an update to EU state aid rules clarifying how Member States can provide support to homegrown businesses during the coronavirus emergency.

However the startup association representatives co-signing the latter — which include reps from Coadec in the UK, France Digitale, Germany’s Bundesverband Deutsche Startups, Startup Poland and several others  are concerned the framework is being too narrowly drawn where digital upstarts are concerned.

They point out that startups may be intentionally operating at a loss as a calculated bet on gaining scale down the line, making the current rules a poor fit.

Startups across Europe report that the Temporary Framework for State Aid is not yet giving enough flexibility to Member States to support startup ecosystems,” they write. “The definition of an ‘undertaking in difficulty’ is intended to apply to loss-making businesses. Such a definition will often be enough to deny support being given to such a business. However many startups are loss-making by design in their first years, as they are taking a calculated bet on exponential growth and associated job growth that will emerge in the following years.

“Only taking the current cash flow into account belittles the economic potential of these startups and prevents them from receiving much-needed support. In doing so it can undermine the post COVID-19 recovery, as it is today’s loss making startups which will be the driver for economic and job growth in the future.”

The letter goes on to call for startups to “receive the support that other economic actors are also receiving”.

“Startups provide a key opportunity for our economies and societies to recover as we come out of COVID,” they suggest, adding: “They will play a central part in re-growing our economy and crucially in doing so on a more carbon-neutral footing.”

We reached out to the Commission for a request for comment but at the time of writing it had not responded.

While it might a bit of a contradiction for VC-backed tech businesses which may choose to operate at a loss during ‘normal’ times to be calling for liquidity help now, Benedikt Blomeyer, EU policy director at Allied for Startups — one of a number of startup associations signing the letter — told us the argument is simply that Europe’s startups should be able to expect the same kind of support that is being extended to other types of businesses.

A number of EU Member States have laid out major support programs for startups to date — such as France’s $4.3BN liquidity support plan, announced in March; and a match fund revealed last month in the UK (which remains an EU member until the end of this year).

But the contention appears to be that liquidity isn’t flowing to all the European startups that need it, nor arriving in a timely enough way.

“For startups, loss-making doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a failing business,” Blomeyer told TechCrunch. “The bigger picture is that we are looking at startup ecosystems as key providers of jobs and economic growth coming out of the crisis. Some startups will fail, just like other businesses. But the question is whether startups should be able to access the same kind of support that other companies can to help them survive this crisis. We believe they should.”

Commenting on the issue in a statement, Paolo Palmigiano, head of competition, EU & trade for law firm Taylor Wessing, agreed the EU state aid rules may struggle to accommodate Internet businesses.

“The criteria introduced by the Commission in the Framework that a company must be viable as of 31 Dec 2019 makes sense in the old brick and mortar world. A company which would have gone in any case bankrupt, even without the current crisis, should not receive aid. The criteria start to be more complex and causes difficulties for tech companies which might not be profitable at the time although they could be in the future,” he said.

“The state aid rules were created in the 60s at a time when the single market did not exist and Europe had a lot of old-style industries (like steel). We need to see how the Commission react but I can see them struggling – how do you distinguish a loss making tech company which in any case would have gone bankrupt from a loss making company that will become profitable in the short term?”

Asked how it believes the Commission should replace the current viability criteria and assess which startups merit help and which don’t, Allied for Startups’ Blomeyer called for a blanket exemption for startups founded over the last half decade or more.

“There could be a clear exemption from the UID test for companies that have been set up in the last 5-7 years,” he suggested. “We need to underline that this is an unprecedented crisis that requires extraordinary measures. So while in normal times a regular process of assessing whether/how to assess startups might have worked, now the ecosystems that built them are melting away before our eyes because of the barriers. The basic conundrum is that it is unclear whether a loss-making startup is indeed not a viable business. This needs resolving.”

In what now feels like an earlier age late last year — as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was taking up her five-year mandate — tech-driven change was identified as one of her key policy priorities, with digitization and a green deal taking center stage, alongside a push for European tech sovereignty and support for homegrown startups to scale up.

So if Europe’s startups are feeling overlooked now, in the middle of an unprecedented economic shock, that hardly reflects well on the Commission’s claimed high tech policy goals.

Update: A Commission spokesperson told us it has received the letter — and will “reply in due course”.

The Commission says the State aid Temporary Framework enables Member States to use the full flexibility foreseen under State aid rules to support the economy in the current difficult times, noting that it applies to businesses of all types.

However it confirmed companies that were already in financial difficulty on December 31 2019 cannot be eligible for aid under the Temporary Framework, saying this is to ensure aid is targeted at companies suffering financial difficulty as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The criteria around ‘in difficulty’ — which are referenced in point 20 of the Rescuing and Restructuring Guidelines and Article 2(18) of the General Block Exemption Regulation — are based on existing state aid rules plus the Commission’s case practice, it added, while noting that individual notifications of aid to remedy a serious disturbance of the economy based directly on the EU Treaty remain possible — which it would then assess on a case-by-case basis.

The Commission also noted that other possibilities are available to Member States to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak — in line with EU State aid rules and as set out in the Commission Communication of March 13 — such as Member States making generally applicable changes in favour of businesses (e.g. deferring taxes, or subsidising short-time work across all sectors), which fall outside State aid rules.

It noted that they can also grant compensation to companies for damage suffered due to and directly caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

It added that it is continuing to work with all Member States to discuss possibilities and find workable solutions in line with existing EU rules. Although TechCrunch understands that a fitness check is taking place to look at whether State aid rules are still fit for purpose — with the potential for modification.