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The Ljubljana Process - Gearing the ERA towards 2020

bridges vol. 21, April 2009 / Letter from Brussels

By Martin Schmid


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The Slovenian Council Presidency is almost a year in the past, but the name of its capital is still frequently used in European research policy debates. At the informal meeting of European research ministers in Slovenia in April 2008, the process of gearing the European Research Area (ERA) towards the year 2020 was given the name "Ljubljana Process." And at least in the eyes of a supporter of European integration, the process that is now about to unfold deserves a name that will be remembered. The process is more than just a continuation of what started 10 years ago when the ERA concept was created along with the Lisbon process. What has the potential to make a difference, what might soon be seen as a paradigm shift, is that the Member States are about to take the ERA into their own hands.

This shift is more significant than it may first appear. Of course the ERA consists of the EU's Member States - and the states associated with its Research Framework Program, by the way.  And yes, the majority of the competencies to implement the ERA are in the hands of the Member States. But for its first 10 years the ERA was mainly driven by the European Commission. The Member States followed what had been designed by the Commission's services and sent delegates to Brussels to discuss what the Commission had proposed a few weeks before. Now there seems to be a consensus that bringing the ERA forward beyond what was reached in its first decade will require a clear commitment by its stakeholders.


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To achieve this level of commitment, a vision has been developed and agreed upon by ministers under the French Presidency, outlining all the important goals that should be reached by 2020 or at least aimed at ambitiously. Five major initiatives have been launched by means of Commission communications representing five strategic areas where progress within the ERA is believed to be crucial1 . And now here we are, at the turning point. The Commission initiated the process of gearing the ERA towards 2020 with its green book on the ERA in April 2008, has subsequently launched the five ERA initiatives, and thus - presumably only half intentionally - has paved the way for its own retreat into the second row. Member States have taken up the ball and repeatedly stated in discussions that, given the far-reaching ambition of the new ERA initiatives and the vision 2020, there is no alternative for them but to take the lead. The EU would intrude too far into national competencies for a Commission-led process to be accepted; and too much commitment will be required of Member States for them to make that effort without having full control over the process.

In an ideal ERA, the Member States would make the principal decisions, work together in various configurations, and ask the Commission for support where necessary. The Commission would play an important role, assisting with its knowledge, its human resources and, where appropriate, with money from the Framework Program. It would also guarantee the transparency and openness of the ERA. But this ideal ERA is still far in the future. The "partnership approach" that has been chosen to implement ERA initiatives is probably the right way to go, but the way will be hard and long. It will not be easy for the Commission to step back from its role as the driving force. As shown by the example of the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA), it is also not easy to guarantee openness and transparency: With the initiation of the EERA, the Commission sacrificed the principle of transparency to develop an efficient structure as fast as possible. By proposing to the major agencies to form the "club" without even informing the others, the Commission lost a lot of credibility - especially with medium-sized Member States. But for Member States to establish a firm grip on the ERA's steering wheel will be far more difficult than the Commission's development of its facilitator role. It was a comfortable position to wait for Commission proposals and then criticize them. If something was unclear, the Commission had to provide an answer. But in the partnership, these times are over. Member States' officials will have to think for themselves and answer the questions on their own. No Commission will be there to take the blame. It will require time for both sides to learn their new roles, but they will learn in the end because there is no way back. The advantages of European Integration in Research at both the program and policy levels are so obvious that the movement is destined to continue. We should hope that it will occur in a way that is structured and coherent, open and transparent.

There is not enough space here to consider other questions of ERA governance, and the time is not yet ripe. The incoming Swedish Presidency has made it its mission to address the governance of the ERA, the questions on what it should encompass and how it will be administered. So far no one has attempted to tackle the enormous complexity that lies behind the ERA. In the broadest sense, it covers the knowledge triangle from higher education up to innovation, even including cohesion policy. It covers European, national, and regional levels of activity, as well as intergovernmental institutions and schemes. And it extends beyond Member States to include a significant and still growing number of associated states. The brainstorming has only just begun. The Letter from Brussels will continue to keep you informed.



Martin Schmid is a member of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture. Since July 2005 Schmid has been working as attaché for scientific affairs at the Austrian Representation to the EU in Brussels.References:

1 Better careers and more mobility: A European partnership for Researchers, COM(2008) 317; Towards joint programming in research , COM(2008) 468; Proposal for a Council Regulation on the Community legal framework for a European Research Infrastructure, COM(2008) 467; Commission Recommendation on the management of intellectual property in knowledge transfer activities and Code of Practice for universities and other public research organisations, C(2008) 1329; and A strategic European framework for international S&T Cooperation, COM(2008) 588.




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