LIVE BLOG: Europe and the push for technology sovereignty

08 Sep 2020 | Live Blog

Watch this space for live coverage of today’s Science|Business virtual conference, gathering national ministers, EU officials, industry executives and researchers to discuss how the EU can boost its technology sovereignty while keeping science borders open. The conference marks the start of a Science|Business initiative on this topic over the next year. To find out more, email [email protected].


In a session discussing the industry's views on "Europe First" policies, Nathalie Errard, the head of EU affairs at Airbus, said that the company’s priority is ensuring a level playing field in the global market, allowing the company that exports 80 per cent of its planes abroad to be competitive.

Airbus, together with its US-based competitor aircraft producer, Boeing, has been involved in a long-running export tariff dispute between the US and the EU. US President has been threatening to impose tariffs on Airbus products for over a year after the EU gave the company public money.


In a world that becoming more and more intertwined, Europe’s advancement is driven by cooperation with other countries, said Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s science minister, in the closing session of today’s conference.

“It would be a pity if Europe closed itself off,” admitted Nzimande. “What we need to be looking at is how to expand the cooperation we already have between South Africa and the EU to the rest of Africa.”

Increased cooperation would benefit all sides, while closing off could further deepen inequalities between the two regions. Nzimande argued colonialism has set the relationship of the two continents on a “very unequal footing” and it needs to be fixed.

“All indications are pointing that the next big region is going to experience huge economic growth is Africa,” said  Nzimande, highlighting the need for Europe to tighten cooperation with the continent.


In the workshop on urban mobility, some speakers contended that the global Internet platforms may not supply the necessary data and algorithms European cities need to optimise their transport systems. Gareth Macnaughton, innovation director for EIT Urban Mobility, argued that algorithms developed for commercial purposes aren't necessarily going to prioritise the most important journeys.  "Currently the algorithms used by some of [the ride hailing] companies tend to have the driver circling around districts with a little bit more money," he said. "But say someone calls from a very poor neighbourhood. They don’t have much disposal income, but if they're calling a cab, it's usually because it's something important and there is no visibility of what’s happening there." 

He also noted that European cities tend to be more dense and compact than cities in North America, meaning that transport planners can't necessarily employ "off the shelf algorithms from other people."

In a similar vein, Niels Wiersma, responsible for the data and platform strategy for smart mobility for the City of Eindhoven, said that the major Internet platforms aren't supplying the very detailed data the city needs.  “We are having significant trouble on getting it on a city-scale,” he said. “You can imagine we want it on a very granular level because we want to say something about patterns on specific work locations.”


While the EU will continue research collaboration with players around the world under Horizon Europe, some third countries will have restricted access to the programme, says Jean-Eric Paquet, the EU's director-general for research.

To ensure research cooperation serves the EU’s interests, the European Commission is planning to “calibrate the research areas on which we will engage with a degree of limitations on engagement with certain [geographical] areas.”

In practice, this means under Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research programme, certain project calls will not allow the participation of certain countries “for reasons linked to security.”

This does not necessarily mean China, Paquet warns, but admits that working and sharing results on certain research with China might not be in Europe’s interest.


Dividing the significantly reduced Horizon Europe budget between different research programmes will be a big challenge for EU policymakers, admitted Jean-Eric Paquet, the EU's director-general for research, during a live Q&A session.

Once the EU budget deal is agreed, the money for the next research programme, Horizon Europe, will have to be spread out between its different components, such as public-private partnerships, basic research at the European Research Council (ERC) and the EU’s upcoming research missions.

Paquet admitted he could argue for an increase for all components of the EU’s next seven-year budget programme, thus finding areas where the funding could be cut will be extremely challenging.


Antoine Petit, the chief of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), says the budget of the European Research Council (ERC) for the next seven years must be increased to ensure the success of Horizon Europe.

“Without outstanding fundamental research, we will not do any innovation,” said Petit, arguing that the ERC’s grants for basic research deliver the fundamentals needed for Europe’s next R&D programme to succeed. Petit noted, however, that the ERC’s success is ‘fragile’ and must be fostered to be preserved.


Digital sovereignty is not about ensuring exclusive autonomy of European decision-making or control over technological resources, said MEP Maria-Manuel Leitao Marques in the first panel discussion of today’s conference.

She argues while Europe cannot produce all its technology and have complete autonomy, certain areas of the value chain must be protected, such as user data and the resilience of the EU's digital systems.

“We must be open for business but we cannot be taken hostage by other's money,” concluded Leitao Marques.


No one is safe until everyone is safe: the COVID-19 crisis may have highlighted the need for European self-sufficiency, but when it comes to health, it has also underlined its interdependency. “It’s not Europe First or Europe only,” said Maria Pilar Aguar Fernandez, head of the health innovations unit at the European Commission. “European research is open to the world – that’s something that’s embedded in our genes,” she told the Science|Business workshop on the role of public-private partnerships in preparing for the next pandemic.

James Eshelby, vice president of global public-private partnerships at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer agreed, saying there is a balance to be struck. “The outputs of [public-private] programmes have to benefit Europe, but that doesn’t mean to the exclusion of other areas,” he said.


Thomas Rachel, the state secretary at the Germany’s ministry of education and research, said technological sovereignty is one of the goals of the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, designed “to strengthen the EU’s innovation capacity”.

However, Rachel warned that the EU cannot achieve technological sovereignty on its own. “It’s not as simple as Europe First. We need to reach out and find partners,” said Rachel, arguing that openness and sovereignty are “two sides of one coin”.

This is especially clear after the COVID-19 crisis exposed Europe’s reliance on global value chains and the global competition for technological dominance is becoming fiercer. Stressing the importance to act now, Rachel assured technological sovereignty is one of the priorities of Germany's ongoing EU presidency.


EU policymakers should put a system in place for de-risking the widespread deployment of green innovations across Europe, panellists argued during the Science|Business workshop on the sustainable green recovery.

Europe has always been excellent in development innovations, but leading companies would often invest outside the EU. In the bio-based industries R&D, a public-private research partnership with the EU played a key role in keeping these essential research investments in Europe by supporting projects that were not yet ‘bankable’, argued Phillipe Mengal, the chief of the partnership.

The next step is de-risking the deployment of these innovations. “All the companies are convinced that we need a system in place to accompany the deployment,” said Mengal.

Dirk Carrez, the director of the Bio-Based Industries Consortium, agreed that a system to streamline the investments is needed and added that a digital platform connecting companies and regions in need of investment could facilitate the process.


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