The Brief, powered by Yara – A mission-oriented narrative for Europe

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

Horizon Europe, the EU’s research programme, has been one of the biggest winners of the EU’s long-term budget after 2021. But it’s not all about money (even if we’re talking about  €100 billion here). Science needs a mission, Commissioner Carlos Moedas told reporters on Thursday.

Pointing to the experience of the US moon-landing project, Moedas said that Europe needs “a couple of good missions… inspiring for taxpayers”.

But mission-driven science is not the only thing we need. Since Lehman Brothers collapsed, Europe has been muddling through, looking for a new sense of purpose.

This humble reporter also looked at the Apollo programme during the worst period of the financial crisis back in 2012. Confined by the requirements of a Political Studies paper, my proposal was to forge a mission-oriented narrative to update Schuman’s goal of peace and prosperity.

Because Europeans were not the first to know that you should aim for the stars when you want to stay two steps ahead.

“It is time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth,” JFK told the Congress in 1961.

Kennedy decided to throw all of his weight behind the moon project as a wake-up call to overcome the economic and moral crisis his country was struggling with when he took power. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the USSR’s leading position in the space race ultimately convinced him, despite the massive costs.

For historians, the Apollo programme was a “turning point” in the country’s history. It was the basis for US tech leadership in the following decades (computing, electronics miniaturisation…). Congress estimated that there was an economic return of seven dollars for every dollar invested.

The moon-landing mission also shaped the dreams of a whole generation. Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said the image of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was behind his passion for science and entrepreneurial spirit.

Apollo’s success was partly explained by its strong links with the American narrative of the pioneers. But the new goal was no longer the West Coast. Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ was space.

Is there a similar idea powerful enough to inspire Europeans? What project could radically transform our economy and, at the same time, address our structural weaknesses?

For this Brief’s writer, the answer in that paper (and still is) can be found in the field of energy: nuclear fusion. As Felipe Gonzalez said, “if we don’t address the energy challenge, our social cohesion model would be simply unsustainable”. And isn’t energy at the very roots of the European community?

Some would raise an eyebrow. Seeking nuclear fusion may be seen as searching for the “holy grail”, as Anthony Giddens recalled. To make things worse, the international project to build a nuclear fusion reactor (ITER), mostly funded by the EU, is described as the “worst managed EU project”. For Green MEPs, Europe should forget about pipedreams and focus on proven technologies such as renewable energy.

But the fusion of atomic nuclei to generate energy is the moon-shot, bold and achievable, that the EU should aim for. In contrast with the existing nuclear fission, it would provide safe, cheap, clean, and almost endless energy. By using basically sea water, it would revolutionise the world affairs.

“If we could get to a solution that would be just ground-breaking… a lot of our problems would be solved,” Moedas said on Thursday.

But big dreams need deep pockets and iron fists.

Landing on the moon cost US taxpayers no less than $150 billion, a total of 5.3% of the federal budget. Meanwhile, EU funds for ITER represent 0.00011% of payments in the current MFF.

NASA and ITER shared a decentralised model. But the US agency decided to pick a four-star general, Samuel C. Phillips, as the all-powerful manager to coordinate a vast network of public agencies, universities, private contractors, involving 376,700 people (ten times NASA personnel), 500 subcontracted projects and a myriad of institutional cultures and dynamics.

Phillips’ working method was so outstanding that Science magazine said “it may turn out that [the space program’s] most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings”.

NASA’s boss James Webb said back then that “our society has reached a point where its progress and even its survival increasingly depend upon our ability to organise the complex and to do the unusual.”

When we are about to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the landing on the moon, his comments fit the European project like a glove.

 


Simple solutions for sustainable farming. Applying the right form of mineral fertilisers could generate a reduction of more than 10% of total ammonia emissions in Europe. Reducing environmental ammonia volatilisation would benefit both farmers and society.


 

The Roundup

By Alexandra Brzozowski

It was a dramatic Thursday morning in Westminster, starring British PM Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis. According to some special skills of the latter, May is well advised to take his resignation threats seriously. And, well, under another new plan, the British government aims to ‘backstop’ Brexit until December 2021.

This is how you do it: Spain’s new PM unveiled a new government that is both, pro-EU and dominated by women.

The Italian energy minister in the meantime has not much love left for a major gas pipeline project, which puts at risk what is by Brussels seen as a cornerstone of EU’s energy security.

When it comes to rubbish, Poland is the poster child in the Visegrad Four. Municipal waste management there comes the closest to European norms.

Although Austria’s government, in which the far right is represented, has plans for a tough anti-immigration agenda, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker puts hopes in its ‘pro-European’ EU Presidency.

Under a strengthened science and innovation fund, the Commission wants to finance “a couple of good missions” that would inspire people as the moon-landing project did. The EU also waves goodbye to the Juncker plan, which will be replaced by “InvestEU”, Europe’s new investment fund.

After being postponed three times, Germany’s government finally has appointed the long-awaited commission which is to define a roadmap for the country’s coal phase-out.

As cybersecurity threats grow, the EU cybersecurity agency wants to open a 24/7 crisis response centre in Brussels by mid-2019 to manage major crises around the clock.

US President Donald Trump meanwhile invoked the War of 1812 in a testy phone call with Canada’s Justin Trudeau over tariffs.

Look out for…

G7 Summit Charlevoix, Canada starting tomorrow. French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau expressed support for “strong multilateralism”. But with a trade war looming and other side-battlefields, it might be as enjoyable as an awkward family dinner.

Views are the author‘s

 

 

 

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