Welcome Mr Tusk! Innovation as Europe’s new narrative

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

European Council President Donald Tusk wants a baby named "unity" to be born in Rome [European Council]

Mr Juncker called for an ‘inter-institutional agreement’ to fast track his 10 priorities, while Pope Francis warns of the EU’s ‘bureaucratic technicalities’. Moving on next week from leading Poland, the new Council President could improve country involvement, starting with a clear narrative around innovation, writes Christophe Leclercq.

Christophe Leclercq is a policy expert and media entrepreneur, and founder of EURACTIV, in 12 countries. He updates a previous Opinion, just after moderating the conclusions of the European Innovation Summit.

Mr Tusk, upon boarding the complex EU flotilla, you must be wondering: “Can I bring a better course, or at least greater racing speed? Jean-Claude Juncker is captain of the flagship, can I make a difference as armada admiral?” Yes, you can… if you pick stronger trade winds, and offer your fellow captains a simple map.

Politicians – left and right – understand that change is a must, experts agree that reforms are required… and most citizens are doubtful that the EU can deliver! So: How to agree points of consensus? How to make them happen?

Learning from past shortcomings: a firmer agenda for change

Mr Tusk, you know these EU socio-economic goals, bundled into five-year policy packages. The previous ‘agendas’ – ‘Lisbon’ and ‘Europe 2020’ lacked impact, and then were overshadowed by the debt crisis, as I already described in a 2013 opinion. The next bundle should appeal more broadly. For this, we need achievable policy goals and political will, plus good communication.

The past two agendas were in effect a compromise triptych of competitiveness/social issues/environment. The first notion appeals to businesses and the centre-right, the second to the public sector and the left, the third to NGOs and the youth. Long discussions were centered on stakeholders’ fears of any little slight move towards ‘the other side’…

How about a new sense dynamism and confidence, to lift Europe out of unemployment? How about privileging change over status quo, on all sides? Let’s replace the old triptychs with a collective action plan, under one meaningful headline.

Innovation as a principle is well-supported, by all parties, across all countries. On the narrow R&D budget side, this is shown by Horizon 2020: one of the few areas marked for a spending increase. Now let’s broaden innovation, to policy-making. Let’s ‘mainstream innovation’, as Eurocrats would put it.

Packaging for real leadership: ‘Innovation Mandate 2019’

Mr Tusk, you recall the loaded and overused words ‘reform’ and ‘competitiveness’, while innovation is still an attractive goal, and works well in all our languages. There is a flurry of events and reports on the topic, like on ‘single market’, and ‘information society’ before. Let’s make it happen, under your leadership, now.

I would not call this EU government programme an ‘agenda’ (implicitly: for further debate), but the plan resulting from elections and appointments: a ‘mandate’ (explicitly: for mandatory action, legitimised by elections, country support and people’s expectations).

Stating a target date is good to focus the mind, but I would not choose a far horizon (like ‘Europe 2020’, chosen 11 years earlier, in 2009).  In line with political accountability, I would pick 2019, the end of the political mandate given in 2014. 2019: that is when Europe’s citizens should re-elect politicians like you, or send you home. Four years is tight to turn the EU economy and employment around? Yes, this creates pressure for results.

What to make of the envisaged inter-institutional agreement?

Mr Tusk, so far you have been left out of the ‘inter-institutional agreement’ proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker, between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council – meaning all EU Member States. The offer has several downsides, but deserves your strong support, under some conditions.

First, it sounds terribly bureaucratic indeed: I would redefine this as a ‘Union programme’. And above we suggested the umbrella theme ‘innovation’.

Secondly, this proposal will lead to adverse reactions, due to a lack of trust. Inter-institutional agreements are complex and rare, so far between the Commission and the Parliament. Fast tracking is not a carte blanche. As NGOs and unions fear deregulation, despite broad support for the Commission roadmap, the Parliament’s socialist President Martin Schulz will not ‘buy a cat in a sack’. Then, involving the Council is not just meeting people across the road at your new office in Justus Lipsus: it commits 28 governments, many facing Eurosceptic opinions. The narrative is about ‘reforming faster’, not ‘cutting corners’ and reducing scrutiny.

Thirdly, it will take time until the countries fully agree. Some experts expect as much as one year… But the political momentum may create early wins, such as 2015 policy initiatives by the Commission, and perhaps the ‘Juncker fund’. This fuller agreement will also facilitate a deal to keep the UK in, which you support.

Finally, there is the sender himself. Fair or not, despite easily escaping a vote of censure, Jean-Claude Juncker is weakened by Luxembourg’s role in tax evasion. Let’s not overturn the message, but enlist other messengers. Vice-President Timmermanns is co-signatory of the agreement proposal, which helps.

On all these issues, the new Council President is part of the solution.

Mr Tusk, you should co-lead the socio-economic agenda

Overall, there are four options until 2019 for your raison d’être, your Selbstverständnis as your might say in your first foreign language.

First, you could be a discreet chief deal broker, like Herman Van Rompuy for his useful first permanent Presidency. Or you could be Head of State above chief diplomat Mrs Mogherini; if so probably focusing on Poland’s priorities: Eastern Europe, energy and security. Based on Poland’s economic record and on your ‘big six’ aura, I advocate a third option: strategic leader. Finally, Mr Tusk, do you have the skills and drive to do all three?

As President, you are the bridge to Prime Ministers who would not side directly with the Commission. To do so, you have to reach directly to public opinions, and build a theme around your persona. You should attach your name to a simple and meaningful theme, like Jacques Delors to the internal market, and his successors to the euro and enlargement. The fitting topic in my view is, yes, innovation.

What will innovation mean in practice?

In Brussels circles, ‘innovation’ is often misunderstood as just an extension of R&D programmes, made to sound less like subsidies, closer to market and enterprise.

Here, we talk of innovation as a narrative in the normal sense, of doing new things, plus pursuing existing goals with new methods. Two thirds of the policy substance will be the same as before under ‘Europe 2020’. We should innovate not only on ‘what to do?’, but on ‘how?’, and also ‘who and when?’.

Indeed, innovation permeates other areas, such as enterprise policy, smarter regulation, affordable health, social reforms and new ways of debating EU policies and national budgets. And – indirectly – furthering of the internal market and international trade, to bring new growth opportunities. On all these topics, you could sustain the EU’s innovation agenda, helping ‘from above’.

The EU has lately been in rough seas, cruising slowly. Now its ships are repaired, it can get back on course and hoist larger sails. Yes Mr Tusk, you can steer Europe onto the ‘Innovation Mandate 2019’. 

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