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Three scenarios for completing the European Research Area

Despite some smart moves by the Commission, Europe is still some way from the free circulation of researchers, science and technology. Kurt Deketelaere looks at what the next commissioner might do to move things along.

The progress report on the European Research Area published this September left the feeling that little progress has been made since 2012 and that a lot is still to be done to realise the ERA.

What did anyone expect—the free circulation of researchers, scientific knowledge and technology in Europe, as outlined in Article 179 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU? I hope no-one was naive enough to think that the approach taken so far would or could make the ERA a reality in 2014. 

This does not mean the approach was wrong. At the time, the reinforced partnership between the European Commission, member states and interested organisations, as embedded in the ERA Communication of July 2012, was the only politically feasible way forward. The focus on five priorities—national research systems, international cooperation and competition, an open labour market for researchers, gender equality and knowledge flows—with clear actions for all three parties, was realistic and still is. It has brought the ERA much more attention than it had from 2002 to 2012 and, in the Commission’s smartest move, involved ERA priorities being added to the European Semester exercise. National reform programmes now report on ERA issues, and unsatisfactory progress can lead to national corrective measures.

This approach was politically much smarter than proposing an ERA directive, which would have drawn opposition from member states and been only symbolic—noble and brave, yes, but unrealistic and too late to have a chance of adoption before next May’s European elections.

The Commission has done well in the past 16 months: all parties are now aware of the ERA and work toward its realisation. The memoranda of understanding it signed with several organisations, including the League of European Research Universities, and the unilateral statements by others, including Science Europe, have contributed to this increased awareness. The ERA Progress Report 2013 is sure to be a point of reference for the future, and will allow measurement of progress by all member states and interested organisations.

But what about the future—will the approach taken since 2012 bring the ERA to fruition? The next commissioner for research and innovation will have to decide just that at the start of his or her term. I see three possible scenarios.

 In the first, the next commissioner continues with the 2012 approach. Success will depend largely on the correct and strict application of the European Semester, with the Commission holding member states to their obligations and giving clear corrective measures if necessary (which, regrettably, was not the case in 2013). This offers a sure path to realising the ERA, but one that will take many years. Can we wait until 2020 or beyond?

The second scenario combines business as usual with specific legislative measures proposed by the Commission. The measures should focus on driving real and practical progress towards the ERA in ways that cannot be implemented voluntarily by member states and organisations. Two example areas are the differing VAT rates for the purchase of research equipment and differing social security and pension provision for researchers. Solving these problems, which are a clear distortion of the internal market, can only be done in a top-down, legislative way.

In a third scenario, the commissioner combines business as usual and specific legislative measures with a framework directive. The directive should stipulate the goals, principles, instruments, actors and actions of the EU in the field of research and innovation, and give every EU citizen the right to challenge domestic measures that block the ERA. This would impose no active obligations on member states, only passive prohibitions. States should refrain from domestic measures blocking the free circulation of knowledge, specifically if these concern the five ERA priorities. Such a directive should respect the principles of EU action as laid out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU: attribution, subsidiarity and proportionality.

In their October statement Towards a Maastricht for Research, Italian MEPs Amalia Sartori and Luigi Berlinguer put their money on the second and third scenarios. They make an explicit plea for expansion of the ERA toolbox, arguing that European-level legislation, be it specific or general, is needed.

We’ll have to wait and see what the next commissioner thinks about all this. For the time being, the ERA Communication and European Semester exercise should continue. If all parties do what they have to, perhaps a major legislative action by the EU will not be necessary.

Kurt Deketelaere is professor of law at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

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