Janez Potocnik: EU Commissioner for Science and Research

bridges vol. 4, December 2004 / People in the Spotlight

by Eleonora Windisch

Janez_Potocnik_captionJanez Potocnik
EU Commissioner for Science and Research
Brussels, Belgium
photo credit: EC
When the President of the European Commission, former Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso, presented the line up of this future commission to the European Parliament (EP) at the end of October 2004 he was not quite prepared for what was to come: A united front of EP delegates opposing key nominees of his commission proposal. When it became clear that Barroso would not be able get a majority voteParliament can only opt to reject the entire team and not individual commissionershe was forced to withdraw his proposal and return to the drawing board. Three weeks later, on November 18 the stand-off with Parliament was resolved, when Barroso presented a slightly modified team. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, replaced Rocco Buttiglione. Latvia brought in Andris Piebalgs to replace much-criticized Ingrida Udre, and Hungarian nominee Laszlo Kovacs was moved from the energy to the taxation portfolio. On November 22, the 24-member commission finally took office.

While some nominees were strongly contested by the EP, Janez Potocnik, Commissioner for Science and Research, was not one of them. He had already passed his litmus test with the EP some months ago.
{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}Janez Potocnik's nomination came as no surprise. Slovenia's successful accession to the European Union was much of his work. Potocnik was Slovenia's Minister of European Affairs and chief negotiator during the country's accession process. Not affiliated with any political party in his home country, Potocnik managed to garner support across party lines. While trying to get the best deal for Slovenia, he was also meticulous about bringing the country up to EU standards. What mattered most to Potocnik at the time was to be part of the 'club'.
That Potocnik would be assigned science and research had all to do with Barroso's difficult and delicate balancing act when putting together his team. Being an economist by training with a Ph.D. from the University of Ljubljana, some observers argued that Potocnik might indeed have been better qualified for a different portfolio. After Slovenia's accession to the European Union in May 2004, Potocnik received the enlargement portfolio working with Guenter Verheugen on the EU's European neighborhood policy. However, with a new Commission scheduled to come in by November, it was already clear then that the enlargement portfolio would be a rather short lived one for Potocnik.
When Manuel Barroso announced the composition of his initial team in August 2004, both Potocnik and Slovenia expressed their satisfaction with the EU research portfolio. Potocnik acknowledged that the new task would be a real challenge. In his official response to the nomination Potocnik stated that he saw the need "to achieve the goals of the Lisbon agenda as one of the most important challenges facing the European Union in the next five years" and that he was happy to "have been entrusted with the responsibility for research."
Choosing Potocnik as Commissioner for Research was in general well received by the media. Observers felt that he had a good knowledge of the bureaucracy and while not being an expert in science and research he seemed to be able to master his new portfolio sufficiently well enough.

In October 2004, the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee scrutinized Potocnik's personal and professional skills and considered him fully qualified to manage the proposed portfolio. Initial concerns about the Commissioner's lack of expertise in the field of research, were quickly dismissed by committee members. The view prevailed that Potocnik would be in complete control of his area of competence. In its letter to the President of the EP, ITRE stated that the "nominee was perceived as honest, sensitive to the human factor, with excellent communication skills, knowledgeable and well prepared, but also willing to listen and discuss possible points of disagreement." The committee praised Potocnik's views on the role of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in research, and welcomed his support for "basic science, simplification of procedures and stimulation of Europe's research potential." In addition, Potocnik was able to convince the Committee about his sincerity to increase the EU research budget and rectify the shortcomings of the current Framework Program (FP). In an interview with bridges the Commissioner underlined that he wanted to concentrate his efforts on two aspects of the FP. "The first will be to try…to make the program simpler and more straightforward for its participants, so that their time can be spent on the important work of research, rather than on administration," he said. "I would also like to work towards involving more SMEs in our program. Currently the participation is quite low, probably linked to the issue of the complexities of procedures. I think if we can make progress in those two areas, we will have made an important step forward."
While the Research portfolio might not be considered quite as prestigious as some of the other portfolios, Potocnik realizes that he also will be at the forefront of deciding Europe's future development. According to the Commissioner the realization of the growth, employment and competitiveness agendaThe goals of the Lisbon and Barcelona agendas are to be met by 2010will undoubtedly be the most pressing concerns for the research portfolio. Although the challenges will be immense, Potocnik does not lose hope. Even if the targets cannot be fully met, he feels that moving into the right direction is the most important thing. Regarding specific aspects of the research portfolio, the Commissioner stated that his "objective will be to make the casewhich I believe to be a very strong oneto have knowledge at the heart of our strategy. All our other prioritiesachieving a doubling in the European R&D budget, proposing the framework programflow from a proper understanding of that objective."
In June 2004, the Commission had opened the debate on the future of science and technology in Europe by inviting the science community in all EU member countries to share their views on the issue. "The response was encouraging both quantitatively and qualitatively," says Potocnik. "We received over 1,700 responses, the highest percentage of which from individuals, and there was broad support for the approach proposed by the Commission." Once consultations with the governments of EU member countries and representatives of the EP are concluded, the Commissioner hopes to be able to present the first proposal for a Seventh Framework Program by the middle of next year.
Together with the adoption of the strategy paper on "Science and technology, the key to Europe's future," the Commission also proposed an increase in the EU's research budget. Increased spending in S&T are considered key to Europe's technological and economic advancement. The increase is a must, if the EU wants to achieve the target it set for itself at Lisbon in 2000 and become the world's most dynamic economy. "Knowledge is the key to growth, employment, and competitiveness," says Potocnik. "If we are to reach our target of 3 percent of GDP invested in R&D, there needs to be an increased effort by both the public and private sectors. Experience shows that countries with high levels of public R&D investment tend to have high levels of private investment."
With Potocnik at the helm of the research portfolio EU member countries can expect a commissioner, who is fully committed to advancing science and research. Europe's economic future will largely depend on utilizing S&T to achieve its growth agenda. Potocnik is full of praise for the achievements of his predecessor, Philippe Busquin. Busquin was often described as the "commissioner who listened," an asset Potocnik finds extremely valuable. Judging Potocnik's style barely a few weeks into his new assignment would be premature. But if we take Potocnik by his own words, Europeans are going to see "an evolution, rather than a revolution."
Related Links
Newszoom - ITRE committee endorses Potocnik and Verheugen (Date: 2004-10-14):
EU Politix - Janez Potocnik, Slovenia's European commissioner: