When it comes to innovation, in particular, the dominant discourse during the debates taking place in the running up to the vote to elect members of the European Parliament was about bringing Europe on the path to economic recovery and to ensure economic sustainability.
Calling upon research and innovation as a way out of the recession has appeared in many parties’ proposal in Spain, Croatia and Greece as they are countries whose academic and higher education system has been dramatically affected by the recession. However, this debate is confined outside the mainstream public debate.
To a lesser extent, this discourse also appears in Northern Europe. In Sweden, for example, Pfizer’s recent offer to buy pharmaceutical Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca has triggered a debate about the potential loss of R&D, tax revenue, job opportunities etc. By contrast, in the UK, the centre-right conservative party, commonly referred to as Tories (affiliated with the ECR parliamentary group), centred their proposals on supporting industry and the innovation process. They see developing technologies, products and services through research is a key for increasing competitiveness of the EU economy.
However, there is hardly any debate on the specifics of innovation in any country, with arguably one exception. The debate in Denmark referred to patenting, mainly because on the same day as the European elections, Danes will vote on whether or not to join the EU’s Unified Patent Court (UPC). If voted, all litigation concerning the infringement or the validity of patents in Denmark will no longer be decided by Danish courts. The Liberal Alliance (Ny Alliance), the semi-communist Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten – De Rød-Grønne) and the right-wing nationalist Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti), have been blocking an agreement on the Unified Patent Court. However, the debate was more about the potential loss of sovereignty than innovation per se.
It is worth noting that the very same issue of joining the UPC is due to be subjected to a referendum in Ireland, at later date than the European elections. But none of the debates of the current campaign in Ireland referred to such issue. Instead, the dominant themes were about getting out of the recession as well as a raft of national issues, pertaining to health, job creation, the environment .
Lack of concrete measures
Among all the parties contributing to the mainstream media debate, very few come up with truly specific measures to support economic recovery based on research and innovation. In Italy, for example, the Science Debate initiative Dibattito Scienza was created as a Facebook group gathering academics, teachers, researchers, journalists and members of the general public interested in the interaction between science and policy. But it did not get specific feedback from political parties on policy relevant to scientists, only on topics relevant to societal challenges with a scientific aspect.
The lack of details also plagues the pledge of investment in research and innovation made by parties on both sides of the political spectrum. For example, in France, in the mainstream press debate, the left wing socialist coalition (affiliated with the PSE) and the centre right UDI (PPE)-Modem(ALDE) in France— merely name the broad areas of green tech, digital technologies, biotech and nanotech, as examples of areas where investments should be prioritised, without attaching concrete measures. An article in the French left-wing newspaper Liberation wonders why politicians do not use the research, innovation and education theme as part of their campaign in France, given that Europe is one of the biggest research powerhouse globally.
The same applies in the UK, where the left wing Labour party , affiliated with PES, also saw the EU as being essential for promoting cooperation and best practice in research. They also support the role of EU research in policy making, giving as examples those of climate change, emissions trading and the development of sustainable technologies.
Besides, higher education is mainly present in the mainstream media debate on the topic of the expansion of the Erasmus+ programme. It appears, among others, in the proposals from in France (non partisan party Nous Citoyens), in Italy, (the Northern league (Lega Nord), affiliated with EFD), as well as the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, affiliated with the S&D) and in Germany Alliance ’90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen affiliated with the Greens-EFA Group).
Furthermore, in many countries, there is almost no mention of higher education, research and innovation in the mainstream media, at least not related to the EP elections. In Poland, however, the national discussion over providing open access school books to pupils was reinvigorated because of the debates related to the European election. In a similar vein, in Austria, the national highly emotional debate regarding free access to university studies across Europe was revived. And it is one of the measures supported by the Green (Die Grüne, affiliated with the Greens-EFA) and the liberals (NEOS, affiliated with ALDE). The issue is featured among the pre-selected topics on wahlkabine.at, the Austrian version of votematcheurope, which is a tool that allows citizens to test their political preference with respect to specific issues.
Disappointing top level debate
Finally, a landmark in the public mainstream campaign, took the form of a television debate featuring the five candidates to the EC presidency was held on 15th May 2014. It was broadcasted live over 47 TV stations across 25 countries in Europe. This debate gave the opportunity to European citizens to ask questions using Twitter to the five candidates to the EC presidency, namely Alliance ’90/The Greens’ Ska Keller, EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker, PES’s Martin Schulz, European Left’s Alexis Tsipras and ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt . There were some short references made during the programme to education, for example, but research and innovation issues did not feature prominently.
In the wake of such and other debates surrounding the Presidency of Europe, Andrew Miller, spokesperson for the European University Association (EUA) expressed his disappointement that the issues of higher education and research have not featured more prominently, particularly given that both issues were highlighted during the negotiations and discussion on the 2014-2020 EU budget as being crucial for Europe’s future.
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Additional reporting Jens Degett (Denmark), Mićo Tatalović (Croatia), Tilmann Warnecke (Germany), Elias Aggelopoulos (Greece).
We are grateful to our generous supporters for providing information on the situation in their territories. Without them such reporting could not have been realised. These include Thomas König (Austria), Jean-Pierre Alix (France), Varvara Trachana ( Greece), Athina Stavridou (Greece), Enrico Predazzi (Italy), Francesco Sylos Labini (Italy), Alberto Baccini (Italy), Marcin Krasnodębski (Poland), Amaya Moro-Martin (Spain), Jose Luis De Pablos Hernandez (Spain), Anna Nilsson Vindefjärd (Sweden), Tony Mayer (UK).
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Lars Ploughman
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