Competitiveness is just a buzzword, says Marc Botenga MEP

06 Jun 2024 | News

Left group MEP accuses the EU of prioritising the profits of private companies, and pledges to continue opposing the pharmaceutical reform

MEP Marc Botenga. Photo credits: Eric Vidal / European Union

For the past five years Marc Botenga has been one of the most vocal critics of the EU’s industrial strategy. Now, as he bids for re-election on Sunday, the Belgian MEP is taking aim at Berlaymont’s latest fixation: EU competitiveness.

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi is currently finalising a highly anticipated report on the topic, which is expected to be a priority of the next Commission, but for Botenga, it’s no more than a buzzword. “How is it interpreted? As how much profit a company makes, or how it’s doing on the stock exchange,” he told Science|Business.

He is calling for a clean break with a model that in his view has not worked. “I remember the Lisbon Agenda in 2000, that said Europe would become the most competitive knowledge economy in the world. Well, it’s clearly been a failure,” Botenga said.

As the Left’s shadow rapporteur for key files including the Chips Act and the Net Zero Industry act, Botenga challenged the Commission’s strategy of boosting private investment in green and digital technologies by cutting red tape.

In his view, the EU has made too many concessions to private companies in pursuit of its green and climate objectives – including by giving them co-authority to set strategic research and innovation priorities in the Horizon Europe partnerships.

The idea of the public-private partnerships is to co-develop technologies with industry so they have a better chance of being brought to market. They have largely succeeded in creating a leverage effect, with industry investing two or three times as much as the EU in many of the partnerships according to the Horizon 2020 evaluation.

“We’ve had massive failures in these partnerships,” Botenga said, pointing to the Innovative Medicines Initiative, run in partnership with European pharma companies, and its successor, the Innovative Health Initiative, run in partnership with a broad range of healthcare companies.

Both partnerships have been criticised for putting public money into research that should be funded by companies and of investing in diseases that are profitable to industry, at the expense of areas such as HIV/AIDS. In 2021, the European Parliament said it was “outraged” that in 2018 industry had blocked the Commission’s proposal to integrate epidemic preparedness into the work of the partnership.

In its defence, IMI noted the Commission had decided to focus on HIV/AIDS research through other instruments and that IMI had funded projects related to infectious diseases and vaccines.

But said Botenga, “What’s lacking today in Europe is a strong strategic vision for our public investment, rather than just subsidising the profits of certain private companies.”

A notable example of that is the Net Zero Industry act. It was originally designed to cover eight green technologies, before the list was expanded to 19, including nuclear energy and carbon capture. “That means you’re not making strategic choices,” Botenga said.

He is more in favour of the way in which the Horizon Europe Missions were designed to provide that strategy, by coordinating research efforts around five societal challenges of cancer, climate adaptation, oceans and rivers, soil, and climate neutral cities. “I like the idea of having missions, but they should be developed in a participatory, democratic and transparent way of governance,” he said.

Botenga also believes public authorities should get intellectual property (IP) rights for technologies they help to develop. “Why can we only speak about return on investment if it's for private companies? We need a return on public investment, and not just indirectly through jobs,” he said.

Maintaining IP rights would also allow the EU to make green technologies available to other countries to combat climate change, in the same way the Medicines Patent Pool, founded by Unitaid in 2010, has lowered the cost of HIV treatments by providing licenses to local generic drug manufacturers.

Pharmaceutical reform

If re-elected, Botenga is also pledging to continue opposing the current version of the EU pharmaceutical legislation. The European Parliament recently adopted its position ahead of negotiations with the Council, but he and his fellow Left MEPs still believe they can make their voices heard.

“Once there’s a mobilisation on something, every text can be questioned,” Botenga said, pointing to recent changes to environmental conditions for agriculture subsidies after widespread farmer protects. “This is a battle we’re going to keep putting on the agenda, regardless of what the agenda of the Commission is.”

IP rights are at the heart of the debate about the regulation, which has the ambition of improving access to innovative drugs. Drug developers currently benefit from eight years of clinical data protection, with the possibility to extend this by a further two years, after which generic or biosimilar versions of a drug can launch. While the Commission proposed reducing data protection to six years, with various possible extensions, Parliament settled on a baseline of 7.5 years, with a cap at 8.5 years.

MEPs also want to introduce transferrable vouchers granting companies which develop novel antimicrobials up to 12 months of additional data protection, which can be transferred to another product. Botenga, who is Workers' Party of Belgium’s lead candidate, believes both of these positions would limit patients’ access to medicines.

The issue isn’t new. Back in 2021, MEPs from the Left group called on the Commission to support a temporary waiver to patents for COVID-19 vaccines, which Botenga says was initially “like cursing in a church”. But in June that year a majority in Parliament backed the proposal, which a year later was approved by the World Trade Organization.

Industry claims clinical data protection is crucial for incentivising innovation, but Botenga says the private sector has failed to improve access to medicines, and is calling for a European public infrastructure for pharmaceutical R&D to fill the gaps left by the market. This was a recommendation from the independent scientists who advised Parliament on the reform, but it failed to make it into the final text.

Throughout the legislative process, Botenga has been pushing to increase transparency around how pharmaceutical companies spend their money on R&D, a call that has the backing of the Médecins Sans Frontières charity, and he even suggested forcing companies to invest more of their profits in R&D.

Pharma companies do not publish detailed breakdowns of R&D costs, even for products which benefited from public funding. “We’re putting money into a black box, hoping that in the end something will come out,” he said.

Botenga would be interested in rejoining Parliament’s research and industry committee ITRE if re-elected, or potentially a new defence committee if one is created. He says recent steps to boost defence capabilities have been “rushed through Parliament in a rather undemocratic way”.

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