Lay out the path, get out of the way but please give me ambition.

European Commission and FlagToday we see a new commission elected in Europe. As a European you always want this to be a new beginning, a new hope, perhaps a new start for Europe. Jean-Claude Junker has become the new president of the European commission and along with his new Commission team have been setting out their priorities for regaining momentum for Europe.

I was re-reading Mr Junker’s policy agenda based on “Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change” and you realise not just the complexity and challenge all this entails, bringing 28 countries along still, it seems, a pathway that still talks “a single union.”

It prompted this post.

My interest here relates clearly around innovation, it touches everything but for it to achieved and delivered as a new promise, it needs the necessary conditions.

I’m been looking for critical aspects that will signal a healthy or difficult road ahead for Europe, sensing the specific change projects that do give us the new opportunities for growth and jobs, and either a vibrant or stagnated period ahead of us.

Three policy intents stand out as high in innovation possibilities.

Mr Junker sets out his ten policy areas and expects to be judged on the results from achieving progress towards these. Let’s quickly highlight these ten policy thrusts:

Firstly, and I think the overriding need for Europe is to remain competitive, does comes from the correct identification of “a Connected Digital Single Market”, then constructing a “Resilient Energy Union” and thirdly “Strengthen the Industrial Base.

These three policy directions offer real innovation promise. These are where there is significant innovation, jobs and growth but still lacking, in my opinion, a set of cohesive social directives that we can gather around that make us see why. We are seemingly focusing on the edges and not striking at the ‘heart’ of social issues that Europe needs to address.

Other policy intents outlined

There are statements of “a deeper and fairer internal market”, the wish to “converge economic, fiscal and labour market policies”, the quest for a “balanced free trade agreement with the U.S” and a “Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy” but these have a more economic ring to them but lack substantive outcomes.

Mr Junker raises the political and socially political issues of “Justice and Fundamental Rights”, a wish to have a “New Policy on Migration” but they only play at the edges, important ones without doubt but skirt the social tensions that ‘simmer away’ within Europe.

Are we connecting into or still ignoring the underlying social tensions?

I think when you face the lack of growth; of getting millions of people back into jobs and having “trust in the European project is at a historical low” in Mr Junkers words, I’m not sure we have made the new start for Europe that Mr Junker wants.

He wants to “rebuild bridges” to restore European citizen’s confidence yet he provides in his words “an ambitious Jobs, Growth and Investment Package” of an extra Euro 300 billion into the real economy over the next three years, is that really enough to ‘kick start’ the economies across Europe? This sum might send a signal but it lacks real resolve and boldness.

Much of Mr Junker’s presidency will be determined by his ability to deliver on this. It is going to be a hard fight to find the money as it needs to be additional to the existing budgets or he is forced to find this within the existing budgets. That will be determined by the 28 member states and then by the European parliament.

Is this enough, of course not if it stands alone to kick start the economies, but it is a serious amount of money to find at difficult times. As this request has been wrapped up as “additional” I would feel it is going to be tough to achieve, when it does seems to come from a part of Mr Junkers opening statement in the European Parliament, of “we need smarter investment, more focus, less regulation and more flexibility when it comes to the use of these public funds”. He might find the answer back is “well find it then in what you have.”

Approval of any additional funds opens the door to considerable re-jockeying of hard-won positions already established. All of this will add further to the current ‘disillusionment’ within the EU system if this becomes a public wrangle between the 28 member states. I feel it will be ‘pinched’ from current budgets and that becomes a worry or is simply re-crafted away from general budgets into specifics.

The Horizon 2020 budget might be vulnerable

This is the innovation package of Euro 80 billion to push Industrial leadership (Euro 17 b), Excellence in Science (Euro 24.4 b) and Social Challenges (Euro 29.7b) as the big three pillars. Let’s hope this gets ring fenced and the call for injecting Euro 300b into the economy over the next three years is on top, not shifting the lines of the budget, as it becomes a considerable infusion, much-needed in this current economic horizon.

The critical messages and debate we need to discuss in Europe lies here

Again in Mr Junkers own words “Europe is finding it is often ill-prepared for the global challenges ahead, be it with regard to the digital age, the race for innovation and skills, the scarcity of natural resources, the safely of our food, the cost of energy, the impact of climate change, the ageing of our population, or the pain and poverty at Europe’s external borders”

In Mr Junkers call he believes any additional investment should be directed towards “infrastructure, notably broadband and energy networks, as well as transport infrastructure in industrial centres; education, research and innovation; and in renewable energy”

The intent is to get the “younger generation back to work in decent jobs” with this investment providing for “new, sustainable and job-creating projects that help restore Europe’s competitiveness”

The problem with this  is we are not equipping much of the younger generation with the skills of the future jobs, we are locking them into the past and denying them the chance to be exposed to these rapidly changing skills that industry is arguing are needed.

Here is one real, difficult challenge that will continue to drain away future competitiveness unless it is adequately addressed.

So a new start in Europe or are we seeing just an extension of the existing?

I sense the extending of the existing, I’m not sure I see a crafting of a new vision, a new direction, we are still locked into the “decades of European integration” on being the continued, ongoing focus on not to be undone at any price. I certainly don’t want a radical ‘undoing’ but Mr Junkers “rebuild bridges” I feel is directed at the 28 country entities and not at, and for, the European citizenry. We are caught up in too much national politics and jostling in the European Union and that will eventually ‘come home to roost’

So I’m not sure I buy the new approach, the “New start for Europe.”  I think the incoming commission and Mr Junker might have missed a historical moment for Europe, setting their sights on billion-euro spending and not really making that leap into trillion-euro opportunities – articulating the bigger picture.

There is a real need for an overarching ‘European Ambition’, we  lack a bold new vision.

We still lack real economic enabling ‘ambition’. It is not wrapped up in a pursuit of the Union of Countries, as this seems socially unacceptable, it is wrapped up in a “Union of Grand Challenges” that the 28 countries can unite behind for the good of their people.

“Delivering on unifying digital, energy, building infrastructure, moving back to our industrialisation base, built on deep research and development, delivered through innovation, knowledge and education at the core can bring us those trillion-euro opportunities for new jobs and growth“- now that provides the ambition intent I feel .

They are within the policy bases covered by Mr Junker but not in the bold, essential ways we really do need to regain the initiative and regain momentum. He lost the opportunity to create a clear, compelling reason to unite behind these in laying out what this actually does mean to fail on these or what they can give, and by not doing this it might have consigned us to a further period of stuttering, indecisive leadership at the very time it needs to be radically different.

Europe is in crisis, it might not be going away

Europe lacks a forward momentum; it suffers lowering productivity, a growing imbalance between the right jobs and places to focus growth to get the economic growth back.
We seem locked in internal ‘competitive politics’, external lack of competitiveness and regional and national disparities that drag down any commercial outcomes that might improve our performance.

Of course I wish Mr Junker well and his commissioners, they are not in an enviable place but nor is Europe, we are in a very tough, demanding world where ‘innovation and being competitive’ requires a boldness, an increased sense of ‘what is at stake’ by not looking in our rear-view mirror but in the future coming towards us.

I just hope we have the capabilities to steer towards this future and not keep pulling over to fix the engine while others continue to pass us, already on cruise control.

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