The newly initiated Slovenian Presidency of the EU Council has many challenging policy dossiers on its agenda for the next six months. But with the government in Ljubljana charting both green and digital transitions as priority areas for the bloc’s recovery, focus is also being placed on how the new Presidency may seek to foster innovation in the European tech ecosystem, as part of these objectives.
Having assumed their seat at the head of the EU Council on Thursday (1 July), the Slovenian government has said that it would like to shepherd EU policy in four directions: bolstering the bloc’s resilience in the face of future challenges, charting progress on the Conference on the Future of Europe, ensuring a union of balanced rights, and improving security in the EU’s neighbourhood areas.
In terms of tech innovation, an area in which Central and Eastern European countries have historically lagged, the Slovenians believe that the EU’s research and innovation pursuits will have an important part to play in the bloc’s recovery.
In this vein, the Slovenian Presidency’s programme, published this week, plans the adoption of an EU Pact for Research and Innovation, which the Commission had proposed last year, as a means of developing shared policies in the area, focusing particularly on the importance of freedom of scientific research, gender quality, and improving career prospects for researchers in Europe.
In the wider R&I space, the Slovenians are also preparing several events later this year, including a high-level conference in Ljubljana on the role of research and innovation in the EU and on the focus areas of the European Research Executive Agency, as well as a more targeted event in collaboration with the European Space Agency, exploring the importance of the green and digital transitions in the European space industry.
Horizon Europe: More strategic focus on the Western Balkans
The Slovenians will also seek to increase cooperation in terms of innovation, research and development with Western Balkan countries – which have, over recent years, attracted investments from Russia and more notably, China. Slovenia states that the EU’s 2021-27 €95.5 billion funding framework for R&I, Horizon Europe, “is a magnet for attracting third countries into the European Research Area,” and could thus be leveraged in such a way to increase synergies with third countries in the Western Balkans.
“Work in the Council will focus mainly on the accession of third countries to the Horizon Europe programme and on the preparation of the Council’s response to the Commission’s proposal for a Global Approach to Research and Innovation,” the Presidency’s Programme reads.
Commission’s Innovation Scoreboard: A mixed bag
Ahead of the Slovenian Presidency taking up the mantle of power this week, the European Commission unveiled its 2021 Innovation Scoreboard, with mixed results across the bloc and evidence of continuing trends that show Europe’s southern, central, and eastern areas continue to lag.
The study, which provides a comparative analysis of innovation performance across EU nations and global countries, as well as regional neighbours, was broadly welcomed by the EU executive, with Commissioner for Research and Innovation Mariya Gabriel observing that all EU member states have increased investments in innovation and the “innovation gap in the EU is decreasing.”
But, for her part, Elisa Ferreira, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms said that “a significant innovation divide still remains, particularly for less developed and peripheral regions.”
Indeed, these innovation gaps are still pronounced. For example, the Commission notes that the general performance of Slovenia is below average, despite experiencing a general growth of 2.8% in innovation performance since 2014. This increase in performance, the study finds, is largely down to “strong improvements for Product innovators, Venture capital, and Sales of innovative products.”
Innovation in Europe’s Rural Areas
However, with many of Europe’s least innovative countries being based in southern, central and eastern Europe, there has long been concerns emanating from various quarters of the European Parliament that a lack of investment across these countries may lead to more serious problems.
Slovenian EPP MEP Franc Bogovič has long rued the after-effects of a lack of innovation in these countries and has observed how this could lead to increasing rural depopulation.
With more and more citizens opting to move to major metropolitan centres, rendering Europe’s rural areas without a sufficient workforce or the necessary skills, he has rallied the benefits of building up Europe’s ‘smart village’ networks across agricultural areas, offering digital solutions in a sector which has long been beset by a lack of innovation, particularly low innovation areas on the continent.
These concerns do now appear to have reached the desks of Commission bureaucrats. Earlier this week, the EU executive unveiled its ‘long-term vision for EU’s rural areas.’ The move included the publication of an EU Rural Action Plan, committing to facilitate social innovation as well as improving connectivity across Europe’s countryside areas, which are often left behind from various innovations in the agricultural sector due to patchy network coverage.
Such initiatives have been introduced after the Commission launched a public consultation on the plans, with 93% of respondents noting that the attractiveness of rural areas will “depend on the availability of digital connectivity” and 94% noting that this attractiveness is also dependent on the coverage of rural areas by basic services and e-services.
Digital Policy Areas
Generally speaking, the Slovenian Presidency of the EU has an incredibly busy agenda in the digital policy domain. Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Anže Logar gave some specific details on the areas in which the Slovenians would seek to chart the most progress.
Three dossiers of focus, Logar noted, include the EU’s regulation on Artificial Intelligence, attempts to rein in the dominance of online platforms as part of the Digital Markets Act, and the EU’s bid to harmonise content regulation rules with the Digital Services Act. In terms of the last two files, the Slovenian presidency intends for the EU’s Competitiveness Council to “agree on a general approach on the digital services package at its November 2021 session.”
Bolstering the bloc’s cyber resilience has been also earmarked as an area of attention, bearing in mind several attacks to critical national infrastructures, including health institutions, that have taken place during the pandemic. “The uncertain circumstances brought by COVID-19 and increased digitalisation have further revealed the possible extent of the consequences that a large-scale cyberattack can have on virtually every area of our lives,” Logar wrote.
It will no doubt be a busy six months for the Slovenian Presidency of the EU.
Their leadership of key digital policy files in the Council will prove to be influential in the progress the Commission hopes can be made in these areas. With the bloc’s recovery and resilience to also contend with however, there will be just as much focus on how the Slovenians may be able to use their platform to ensure that isolated areas of Europe don’t get left behind in ongoing green and digital goals, and the necessary pursuit for innovation that such objectives require.