EU has what it takes to become a global leader in the post-pandemic future

The increase of public research and innovation investments is a crucial response to the crisis

Photo: EU Mariya Gabriel.

One year into the pandemic, the European Union (EU) has shown the ability to react to the deepest social and economic crisis since World War II. The EU has shown that it resolutely supports national health systems and counters the socio-economic impact of the pandemic by taking unprecedented measures at both national and EU level. 

Acknowledging that there have been hiccups along the way, the Union guaranteed the supply of medical equipment in record time at the beginning of the pandemic and has mobilised €838 million under Horizon 2020 to support research and innovation in the fight against against COVID-19. What is more, the EU is now coordinating the COVID-19 vaccine supplies for all Europeans.

The EU is mobilising extraordinary financial and human resources to support an ambitious plan for fostering the resilience and enabling the recovery of all Member States. The temporary recovery instrument Next Generation EU - with the Recovery and Resilience Facility at its core - will provide €750 billion to support reforms and investments undertaken by EU countries.

The increase of public research and innovation investments is a crucial response to the crisis. The EU and national programmes have to be reinforced and better coordinated, taking the needs of all Europeans into account. Only then will we be able to drive a sustainable recovery, boost the competitiveness of our economies and catalyse the transformation of our socio-economic systems.

With a budget of €95.5 billion, Horizon Europe will be an ambitious and reinforced research and innovation programme to tackle Europe’s challenge ahead. Through its first work programme, Horizon Europe will invest €123 million to support research and innovation addressing COVID-19 variants.

This unprecedented resource mobilisation constitutes at once an extraordinary opportunity, but also a huge responsibility for policymakers at all levels of government. Europe, with its collaborative and inclusive approach to innovation serving people and planet, and its value-based approach to social services and care is well equipped to respond to this crisis. To be successful however, the Union will need to act in a coherent and ambitious manner at all levels of government, engaging with all key actors and citizens.

In the post COVID-19 world, there is no room for business as usual. It is imperative that the post COVID-19 stimulus measures and the European Green Deal are addressed as a single, systemic and forward-looking investment programme. The impact of our investments, with the important role of research and innovation, will make or break Europe’s future.

Either we choose a sustainable, social and inclusive recovery that leaves no one behind, or we risk creating disenfranchisement and inequity, aggravated by the risk of future health and environmental shocks or socio-political and economic instability. One thing is clear: today’s “moonshot” is about investing in our people, planet and prosperity so that we can safely live within our planetary boundaries and enhance the quality of life of all people across Europe.

Reconciling the trinity of “protect, prepare, transform” leaves Europe with a challenging conundrum: protect citizens and the economy in the short term, prepare them for future shocks by creating greater resilience “by design, not by disaster”, and sow the seeds for transformative, systemic change to promote prosperity in the long-term with the European Green Deal and a just transition as the “North Star”.

Achieving all of these goals in an integrated way is a challenge but if achieved, would enable the EU to protect its values and ambitions, without compromising on its vision of sustainable prosperity. This “Protect, Prepare and Transform Europe” motto of the ESIR high-level expert group ultimately also implies making research and innovation policy more transformative to deliver on EU priorities. Applying a “protect-prepare-transform” design approach ultimately implies learning as fast as possible from the pandemic, so as to prepare our communities for future shocks, focus on transitions that are just, and that adopt new social, green, and digital pathways together.

Emerging from the current crisis must build on the European Green Deal, NextGenerationEU and Horizon Europe to ensure that recovery planning is implemented effectively, impactfully and democratically, that Europe provides more directionality for systemic change, and that we foster more efficient research and innovation for the transformations ahead. At the EU level, policy initiatives such as the European Research Area, the European Education Area, the Digital Education Action Plan, Horizon Europe Missions and Partnerships as well as the New European Bauhaus strongly support mitigating the impacts of the crisis, improving future preparedness and contributing to sustainable and inclusive growth.

What’s next for the EU? At the onset of a second disruptive year, the pursuit of resilience, wellbeing and sustainable development must still be translated into a concrete set of guiding principles, investments and actions that would enable the EU and its Member States to “build forward better”.

This would entail radical innovations in approach, processes and methods of collaboration across governmental departments and levels, finance and industry sectors and communities. The EU should encourage such radical innovations through incentives, and they should be reflected in conditions for the deployment of recovery funds. Such systemic change would require strengthening the role of some of the key ecosystems of the post-pandemic economy, such as cities and regions, universities, and industrial value chains.

No matter what the pandemic crisis will still bring, reconciling short-term needs with longer-term goals is the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity before us. The EU has what it takes to achieve remarkable progress and become a global leader in the post-pandemic future. Now is the time to seize this opportunity, so let’s work together to make it happen.

Mariya Gabriel is the current EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. Sandrine Dixson-Declève is the Chair of the Expert Group on the economic and societal impact of research and innovation (ESIR).

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