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Is Now the Time for a Europe of Innovation?

Is Now the Time for a Europe of Innovation?
 Gilles Babinet
Former Advisor on Digital Issues

On September 10, Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the competences attributed to each member of her College of Commissioners. She confirmed her ambition for a political Europe that would be focused on clearly identified priorities, such as great environmental ambitions. With these announcements, it is also clear that digital technology and innovation play a key role in these stated ambitions. These portfolios will be carried out by three women, each with a remarkable track record of competence and determination.
Though it was expected, the appointment of Margrethe Vestager as Executive Vice President of the Commission, responsible for digital technology, is essential. Herself at one time expected for the presidency of the Commission, she has now been appointed to a tailor-made position that allows her to continue supervising the issues of platform competition and regulation alongside the digital portfolio. Those who have had the opportunity to meet her know the personal conviction of Mrs Vestager that Europe does not occupy the position it deserves in the digital world. She is campaigning on two fronts, for stronger control over meta-platforms (none of which are exempt from uproar in her view), as well as for the emergence of a strong European digital economy, based on her own model. It should be noted, and this is not insignificant, that Margrethe Vestager is also responsible for Europe's industrial strategy. At a time when the very concept of industrial policy is in dire need of redefining, the affirmation of an intrinsic link with digital technology is essential.
Under the aegis of the Vice-President of the Commission, with whom she has excellent relations, the former digital commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, retains a major role. She takes on the other portfolio coveted by the young technological guard, the innovation portfolio, with which she will be able to continue to demonstrate her strong work ethic, her cut-throat voice, and her excellent political intuition. Observers may find curious the addition of youth affairs to this portfolio. One of the objectives is undoubtedly to better synchronize major European programs such as Erasmus with learning and R&D, in order to increase their effectiveness.
Finally, the French Sylvie Goulard inherits of the internal market portfolio, a particularly technical role that includes the task of developing a framework for a European defence policy, and cyber-defence policy. The idea of a €100 billion European sovereign fund focused on innovation and digital technology was discussed this summer and if this project is to come to fruition, Sylvie Goulard will undoubtedly play a key role. In any case, by taking over DG-Connect, the European digital administration, Sylvie Goulard is leading on these issues while still being attached to Vice-President Vestager, thus replicating the Ansip – Gabriel tandem that existed in the previous mandate.
The general impression emerging from this new structure is of a much stronger desire for activism on digital issues and digital industrial policies. It might be that it has finally been understood that the dynamics observed in China and the United States, not to mention Israel, are above all the results of coordinated public policies, largely under the aegis of the military sector. Many people – including myself – believed that a Europe reduced to a free trade zone had no other vocation than to self-destruction in the face of well-structured and powerful external forces. It is only regrettable that Mariya Gabriel does not have a more explicit mandate for higher education which is naturally complementary to her Innovation mandate. Europe suffers from a massive and chronic lack of digital skills, and national university systems seem to be struggling to develop the channels essential for addressing these needs in the short or medium term, starting with France.


Copyright : Jean-Marc Ferré / UN Photo - © European Union 2016 - European Parliament - EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

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