The New European Commission
Wednesday, 24 September 2014
Note: This article was first published in the journal Research Europe.
The appointment of the new European commissioners, who were allocated their roles on 10 September by the president-elect, Jean-Claude Juncker, might seem like a minor bureaucratic reshuffle. But in fact it could have major implications for science and innovation. As the executive arm of the EU, the Commission controls a big research budget: Horizon 2020 will dispense nearly €80 billion of funding between 2014 and 2020 —the largest research programme in the world. Then there is Erasmus+, with approximately €15 billion, plus several smaller initiatives. With such resources, the Commission’s agenda matters.
The innovation agency Nesta and the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think-tank, recently produced a joint policy brief, Reforming the European Commission, which reiterated that this agenda should be dominated by innovation. This is by far the most important driver of prosperity and productivity, and is especially important given that China, South Korea and other countries are improving their innovation capacities relative to the EU. It also argued that the nature of innovation itself is changing and that the Commission needed institutional reform to reflect this.
So what are Juncker’s proposed changes? Most fundamental is his grouping of the 28 commissioners around seven core themes, with the commissioner leading each theme being promoted to a vice president. This is intended to encourage better co-ordination in important areas such as energy, which gets both a vice president and an additional commissioner, as well as focussing them on fewer, bigger, topics. Restructuring to improve focus seems a sensible move—the policy brief argued for something similar—although the politics of having different ‘ranks’ of commissioners could be a different matter.
Another of Juncker’s core themes is the Connected Digital Single Market, to be led by Estonia’s former prime minister, Andrus Ansip. This is a positive development. Digital technologies contribute disproportionately to growth and innovation, but many internet start-ups are hampered from exploiting their cross-border potential by the need to comply with different national regulations. There is also a shortage of skills. Ansip, a chemist by training, who has presided over a remarkable digital revolution in Estonia, should be well positioned to harness the tremendous potential of digital services. Germany’s Günther Oettinger, as commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, will help drive this forward.
The appointment of Jyrki Katainen as vice president for jobs and growth is also encouraging. Katainen is a former Finnish prime minister with an admirable commitment to rigorous experimentation in public policy. This will surely be important when it comes to tackling Europe’s unemployment crisis, where innovation is desperately needed. Of course, jobs and growth are themes that cut across almost every aspect of EU policy, not least research, science and innovation. Ensuring that Katainen collaborates effectively with other commissioners holding portfolios that influence growth will be all-important.
The role of commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation seems something of an oddity. This has been allocated to the Portuguese engineer-turned-banker Carlos Moedas. Among other responsibilities, Moedas has been tasked with maximising synergies between investment in education, research and innovation infrastructure and European Structural Funds. For the UK, this suggests that research institutions may need to forge even closer links with the Local Enterprise Partnerships, given the LEP’s increasing role in distributing money from the structural funds.
Regrettably, however, Moedas’s portfolio is not one of the ‘super seven’ themes. And curiously, control of the Joint Research Centre and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology have been given to the commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship, Hungarian lawyer and foreign minister, Tibor Navracsics.
Many of Juncker’s changes are promising, but it is what the Commission actually does over the next five years that matters. The commissioners must create the conditions in which technology entrepreneurs can thrive; experiment with bold public and social innovations; invest in the infrastructure of the 21st century; educate a technology-savvy workforce and foster a culture of innovation. Only by improving its innovation capacity can Europe create the growth and prosperity its citizens demand.