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ERA takes a back seat at European Council

European heads of state meeting in Brussels have failed to agree concrete plans to progress the European Research Area, at a summit overshadowed by the United States spying scandal.

In conclusions from the European Council meeting, released on 24 October, EU leaders state it will be important to “accelerate structural reforms” to improve the ERA. They invite the European Commission and member states to “continue their efforts”. However, leaders stop short of suggesting concrete deadlines or legislative measures on research issues, which were requested by MEPs earlier this month in a manifesto document.

Overall, leaders mention improved mobility of researchers, research infrastructures and open access as being particularly important to the ERA cause. The conclusions state that leaders will assess progress on such measures further in 2014.

The meeting of heads of state, held from 24 to 25 October, was due to discuss innovation and the digital economy and to reflect on the ERA progress report released in September. But allegations that the US has spied on German chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal mobile broke the night before the meeting began, hijacking the planned agenda. Much of the following discussion was orientated around a German-French commitment to pursue a no-spying pact with the US.

Despite this, the final conclusions retain a strong focus on developing the digital market, indicating that pre-summit efforts by lobby groups to push this agenda had some effect. Leaders lent their support to improving the framework conditions, investment and skills for the digital market, because of what they say is significant potential for economic and employment gains.

The technologies of cloud computing and big data are highlighted as particularly important, with heads of state calling for a “network of national digital coordinators” to open up access to data. In a presentation given at the summit, Commission president José Manuel Barroso said that the volume of data create globally is expected to double every two years. Meanwhile, cloud-computing technologies can result in up to 20 per cent cost reduction for most organisations, he said.

However, member states failed to commit to completing a reform of the EU Data Protection Regulation by next year. Despite this being in an earlier version of conclusions, the final document has postponed the deadline to 2015.

In a pre-summit letter, published on the EurActiv website, Brussels-based lobby group the Lisbon Council said discussions on innovation and the digital agenda by EU leaders should become an annual affair. At present, they remain an exception on the agenda of the EU Council. The Lisbon Council was a major advocate of action on the digital single market in a report, Plan I – Innovation for Europe, launched in the run-up to the summit.

Other issues covered at the summit include the monetary union and migration—but concrete conclusions were postponed until December or later.