The consultation runs until 30 November 2011 and will ask researchers if they find themselves "trapped" in one country, and what sort of new infrastructures they require to share their ideas.
Speaking to journalists ahead of the consultation's launch, the EU commissioner for research and innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said she was aiming to finalise the proposal and publish it before the end of 2012.
The initiative follows calls from EU leaders in February to remove remaining obstacles to a unified European Research Area by 2014, a move that will provide new impetus to the decade-old ERA, she claimed.
Single market for knowledge, goods
Geoghegan-Quinn said creating a single market for "knowledge" would enable researchers, institutions and businesses to circulate, compete and co-operate across borders, increasing growth potential.
She wanted the results of the ERA to be just as visible in Europe as the implementation of the single market for goods and services was in 1992.
Delays to the original proposal, which surfaced during the Lisbon Council in 2000, mean that the Commission is running out of credibility in relation to the idea, which was already "re-launched" in 2008.
Given the current budgetary restrictions and austerity drives at national level, there are doubts that the Commission will have the time or the energy to implement such an idea.
Backing from Barroso, Van Rompuy
Geoghegan-Quinnn insisted that her colleagues were not too distracted by fire-fighting the "stark" economic outlook to prevent this attempt at creating the ERA from succeeding. She claimed to have significant political backing from EU member states, Commission President José Manuel Barroso and his European Council counterpart Herman Van Rompuy.
The commissioner said that the Council's "deadline" of 2014 was unprecedented and provided impetus to the project, adding that Van Rompuy would personally intervene to include the ERA on the Council agenda if he felt that member states were dragging their feet.
Meanwhile, she said Barroso had been asking his Commission colleagues for proposals that could deliver growth and jobs to be put forward to him, and that discussion of austerity programmes had always gone hand in hand with attempts to deliver growth and jobs.
An EU official told EurActiv that the ERA had the advantage of being an initiative that would cost nothing, and that such proposals were likely to find more favour in the EU executive during such a period of austerity than high-cost job creation schemes.