United we stand

Europe must meet the global business challenge by co-ordinating and adequately funding its research efforts, says Janez Potocnik.

Following the unsuccessful referendums on the constitution and the ill-fated European Council in June, I’m not the first to point out that this is a difficult time for the European Union.

The referendum voters were split on the constitution but not on their analysis of Europe’s main challenge. Many, in particular the young, do not see the EU as a guarantor of their economic and social futures in a global economy, while others see in the union their best chance of protection against challenges that globalisation presents.

So the underlying worry is the same — only the remedies differ. I am convinced we have already formulated the answer to this global challenge: the knowledge-based economy.

That is the priority of the commission to which I belong, building on what Europe does best — providing excellent education, allowing top-quality research and making room for creativity and innovation. That’s what the ‘Lisbon strategy’ is all about. But the reality is that we are going both too slowly and not far enough.

The lesson from recent negotiations on the European budget is that there is a clear gap between Europe’s capacity to analyse and its capacity to act.

Most people are agreed that knowledge is the key to Europe’s competitiveness. We also agree that not acting now will make it more difficult, and expensive, to act later. Yet the signs are the future EU research budget will remain close to the compromise proposal arrived at in June — in other words, similar to what we have now.

I’m worried about that but, even more, I’m worried about the state of mind that pervades the union. It’s hard to believe member states will compensate for the proposed effective decrease in the European budget through additional research efforts at national level. And even if they did, this would not lead to a co-ordinated approach and the creation of the European Research Area that is what we need.

Only by joining forces can the countries of Europe cope with the challenges of a fast-changing world. Knowledge should be the guiding light in this strategy.

Looking at the events of the past few months, it is clear we must redouble our efforts to ensure knowledge receives adequate attention and its proper share of the EU budget, simply because with more research at European level we make better use of the resources we have.

Together we are stronger. The latest evidence of this, and one of the best examples, is ITER. This is a visionary project which, if successful, will benefit a world increasingly dependent on energy. ITER will be built in Europe for good reasons, but we all know how difficult that was to achieve. I doubt that even the richest, strongest or largest member state would have been able to convince other international partners to build ITER in their country. Together, we got the project — not just for a member state, but for Europe.

Using this example as a guide we can build international co-operation of an exemplary nature with Europe leading the world, thus keeping the best of our people in Europe and also attracting the best international minds to work here. This is the way to create jobs and important industrial opportunities — and set an example for the future.

Janez Potocnik is European commissioner for science and research. This is an edited version of a speech given to the Informal Competitiveness Council in Cardiff.