09 Jul 2020   |   News

Germans kick off their EU presidency with big plans for research and education

AI, electronics, plastics, cloud computing, pandemic research – all are on an long list of ambitious targets Berlin plans over the next six months

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel at the 8 July plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels. Photo: European Commission.

The German government is making a big bet on science, technology and education to help drag the European Union out of its coronavirus funk and make it a stronger, self-sufficient force in global technology.

With its presidency of the EU Council just begun, Berlin published a wildly ambitious list of new EU-wide projects on artificial intelligence, electronics, plastics, digital education and other topics for which it wants EU-wide approval by the end of this year.

“A strong, sovereign and resilient Europe” is the goal of the German plan, officials said. “The coronavirus crisis has made it clear that Europe needs to strengthen its technological and data sovereignty. It must therefore be the primary aim of Europe’s future research and development policies to maintain and further expand Europe’s technological sovereignty in key areas,” the German research ministry declared in a summary of its plans published 9 July.

To those following techology policy in Europe, the heavy emphasis on sovereignty is the most striking feature of the German plan – a result of growing worries in Berlin and other EU capitals that they cannot rely any longer on an unreliable US or a scary China for key tech supplies or services. In the European Parliament the day before, German chancellor Angela Merkel further highlighted that point, saying, “It is very important that Europe enjoys technological sovereignty, particularly in key areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, also in securing a secure, trustworthy data infrastructure.”

The German plan doesn’t mention money – and most of the initiatives it is proposing would come out of the existing budget plans of the European Commission, supplemented by cash from member states willing to add extra money on their own. But the high-tech plan provides a stronger political rationale than the commission has so far offered to support its next seven year budget plan, to be discussed next week in Brussels by EU leaders.

As council president, Germany cannot force its programme through alone – but as the strongest tech power in the EU and biggest net contributor to the EU budget, Berlin has an outsized say in the negotiations. Further, the Germans have taken unusual care in lining up support with the next governments scheduled to lead the EU: the Portuguese and Slovenians in the first and second half of 2021.

The German aim is to have an 18-month push to get all their ideas over the finish line. If the plan succeeds – a big if, given the ongoing fight over the pandemic and EU spending - it would be the most stable, continuous policy direction the EU has seen in years, implemented by a German commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

The ministry’s specific plans include:

1. “AI made in Europe.” This is a series of initiatives for Europe “to become the world’s leading decentralised AI network that supports the transfer of AI applications into practice.” It said it will build on and Europeanise its own German AI research centres and a Franco-German research network, and support the commission’s previously announced plans for AI R&D and regulation. It also said it plans a “Joint Undertaking” on AI, a type of R&D partnership that would be co-funded by the commission’s Horizon Europe R&D programme.

2. A new data cloud initiative to take a new Franco-German network, GAIA-X, “to the European level.”  GAIA-X was announced last month by Paris and Berlin as a way to resist the dominant position of US cloud service providers, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google, by agreeing on open technical standards, permitting customers to switch easily away from the Americans. The new EU-wide effort would be a so-called Important Project of Common European Interest, a relatively new kind of legal creature in the EU that gives companies an exemption from competition rules to work together, with their governments’ support, on strategic projects.

3. A common European project on electronics manufacture. This would build on a recently announced German initiative to build up electronics manufacturing expertise.

4. “Plastic Pirates”. This is a “citizen science” campaign that the Germans envision linking researchers, companies and youth in efforts to reduce plastic waste. It plans to launch the campaign with the Portuguese and Slovenians. Adolescents from those countries would collect data on “how rivers contribute to the leakage of plastic waste from the oceans”, and these data would be used in a joint research project.

5. Pandemic response. Among projects to cope with the pandemic, the Germans want a new public health research initiative “aimed at boosting the resilience” of European healthcare systems. This would involve an interdisciplinary look at the effect of COVID-19 and development of new ways to cope with future crises, bringing together experts from across the EU. On cancer, meanwhile, the presidency plans a joint declaration with Portugal and Slovenia to find new cancer remedies and prevention.

6. Digital education. It said it plans “a number of initiatives” to boost digital education across the EU. This would go beyond university students, to include teacher training and vocational education. It also plans to boost teaching on sustainable development across the EU.

7. European Research Area. The commission has yet to publish new plans for a single market in research across the EU, but Berlin is already on board. The German presidency plans to adopt council conclusions along th[e] lines” of the commission plan, the ministry said. This would include involving citizens more directly in setting research policy, it said.

8. Green Deal. The Germans are weaving the commission’s big climate-change plan, the Green Deal, into several activities over the next year – but the ministry didn’t announce any big new initiatives. At a Berlin conference in November, it plans a “joint communique with political recommendations for action” to promote bioeconomy ventures and technologies. It plans a “message of support” with other EU institutions on the importance of sustainable food production. It plans to “organise an exchange among member states” on education about sustainability. The only concrete new initiative the ministry described is a plan to boost international research on hydrogen energy among the EU, Africa and Australia.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up