European Research Area: the EESC hails its overhaul as a real New Deal for Europe's R&I

With the new blueprint, the European Commission shows it is determined to stop Europe from losing out to the US and Asia in both basic and applied research, patents and high-tech products and services, says the EESC in a report adopted at the March plenary.

The key strength of the proposed new European Research Area (ERA) is its focus on rapidly translating R&I results into sustainable business and sustainable jobs, stresses the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

"It's absolutely necessary that the new ERA not be just more of the same," says opinion rapporteur Paul Rübig. "This New Deal will boost the impact of R&I at a time when innovation will be make or break, not only for Europe's COVID-stricken economy, but also for the survival of the planet."

European research has been slower than the US and Asia at converting R&D results into innovative products and services. Europe lags behind Asia in patent performance (Asia submitted 65% of global patent applications in 2019, Europe only 11.3%) and especially in digital service businesses and "technology-push innovations", i.e. new products driven by research and development in new technology.

More generally, Asia, especially China and Korea, has massively improved its RTI performance over the past 20 years. China has upped its R&D spending from 0.55% in 1995 to 2.2% in 2018 and outperformed the EU in the total budget spent on R&D, with USD 496 billion in 2017 to the EU's USD 430 billion. Between 2018 and 2019, companies increased R&D by 5.6% in the EU, 10.8% in the US and 21% in China. The new ERA should help Europe catch up through investment and increased mobility.

While backing the Commission's blueprint, the EESC points to five key sectors which have been left out of its list of strategic technologies, yet are vital for the Europe's prosperity:

  • digital business models;
  • goods and food manufacturing technologies;
  • clinical research and the pharmaceutical and biotechnological sector;
  • space technologies;
  • clean water and sanitation.

Digital business models in particular are and will continue to be the fastest-growing businesses on the globe, stresses the EESC, pointing to e-commerce (e.g. Amazon), Industry 4.0, e-banking, e-gaming, digital social networks (e.g. Facebook) and e-security as telling examples.

One other key point the EESC makes in its opinion is the need to balance excellence with speed in transferring R&D results into innovative products and services. In business, speed is of the essence, while scientists strive for excellence and ask for more time and money for R&I. The Commission's RTI policy should square one with the other.


The European Commission presented a communication entitled A new ERA for Research and Innovation on 30 September 2020, with a view to adapting the 20-year-old European Research Area to the new challenges that have emerged, particularly as a result of COVID-19. The Commission requested the EESC's opinion on its proposal on 11 November 2020.

The Commission proposes to:

  • prioritise investment and reforms in R&I towards the green and digital transition;
  • strengthen researcher mobility and the free flow of knowledge and technology through cooperation between Member States;
  • boost market uptake of research and innovation results;
  • improve access to excellence for researchers across the EU.

Under the new Communication:

  • Member States are encouraged to ensure that by 2030, 5% of their national public funding goes to joint research programmes and European partnerships;
  • at least 3% of the Union’s GDP is invested in research and development;
  • Member States lagging behind the EU average are encouraged to increase their investment by 50% over the next 5 years;
  • a pact for R&I in Europe will be adopted by Member States by the first half of 2021 to define areas for joint efforts;
  • the Commission will present a toolbox to attract and retain the best researchers by the end of 2024.

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