21st Mar 2018


EU commission's doomsday talk on innovation 'exaggerated'

Europe is facing an “innovation emergency”, according to the European Commission. But researchers and industry leaders - and the facts - paint a less gloomy picture.

The first time EU research commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn spoke the alarming words was in early October 2010 at the launch of the executive’s new, seven-year innovation strategy.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • There is too much doomsday talk on EU innovation, say experts (Photo: European Commission)

“Business R&D in the EU is 66 percent lower than in the US and 122 percent lower than in Japan, as a share of GDP. And venture capital funds in Europe were in 2008 at a quarter of the level in the US. So we face an innovation emergency,” she told reporters in Brussels.

Since then, “innovation emergency” has been her phrase of choice to describe the state of innovation in Europe, repeating it at least eight more times in official speeches, the last of which - in late March at a lecture in The Hague - was entitled “From Innovation Emergency to Economic Growth”.

But while few would argue that Europe has nothing to worry about, with countries like China and India catching up fast, few believe that Europe is really facing an “innovation emergency”.

Standing strong

“In my view, this is an exaggeration of the facts,” writes Hugo Hollanders, a researcher at Maastricht University and author of the commission’s very own annual Innovation Scoreboard, in an e-mail to this website.

The facts, as outlined in the latest such scoreboards in February this year, show that over the last five years, Europe has been second only to the US, Japan and South Korea.

Moreover, while China is catching up, “the EU27 is slowly closing its performance gap to Japan and the US and increasing its lead over Canada and Brazil.”

The scoreboard takes into account an array of 25 innovation indicators, ranging from "the availability of a high-skilled and educated workforce" to "the number of firms that have introduced innovations onto the market" (even though for comparisons with other regions in the world, it uses 12 indicators).

It is true, according to the scoreboard, that business R&D spending and venture capital in Europe are lower than elsewhere. So are the number of patent applications and that of public-private scientific co-publications.

But the EU does well in the export of knowledge-intensive services and in public R&D spending. It also does well in revenues from licenses and patents, number of doctorate degrees and most cited scientific publications.

“My impression,” says Hollanders, “is that Europe is doing well, generally speaking.”

The continent’s innovation leaders - Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Finland (in that order) - are even “able to compete with the very top”, he says. “Sure, some cracks are showing here and there, but the house itself is standing strong.”

C'est trop

Industry leaders seem to agree. “I would not call it an emergency, definitely not,” says Reinhold Achatz, innovation chief at German technology giant ThyssenKrupp. Before, he used to run the innovation department at Siemens.

“We have to be critical, but we shouldn't underestimate ourselves. We have excellent scientists and researchers,” he says. “But there is no reason to lean back. There is room for improvement in the [market] implementation phase."

Hugues-Arnaud Mayer, innovation chief at Medef, the largest employers’ union in France, also thinks talk of an emergency is somewhat over the top.

“No, that is too much,” he says. “In certain sectors, yes. And in certain regions, notably in the Latin countries. But we have some very large companies that are world leaders in their respective sectors."

Gerhard Huemer, innovation spokesperson for Euapme, an umbrella organisation of European small and medium enterprises, thinks that the commission’s doomsday talk on innovation is “very funny”.

“The eurozone still has a balanced foreign trade account and seems to be competitive,” he says. “And then it has an innovation problem?”

Catchy politics

Why, then, call it an emergency? “It is a catchy one-liner,” says one EU official, employed by the commission’s research department. “I don’t think it is such a bad phrase, actually.”

Hugo Hollanders, the author of the Union’s innovation scoreboard, blames the commission's "alarming tone" on “the particularity of politicians and policy-makers.”

“But I do not share their opinion,” he says. “Or at least not completely.”

For his part, EU commission research spokesperson Michael Jennings defends the use of the term, saying that it is clear that "leading research-intensive European companies, while still strong, are slowly slipping down the rankings."

"So it is very clear that we need to do more to compete effectively on the international stage," he says.

The Acta debate - will innovation be stifled?

Opponents of Acta, the controversial anti-counterfeiting treaty up for vote in the European Parliament in July, say, among other things, that it would stifle innovation. Advocates say the exact opposite.


As the EU continues to struggle with the effects of the economic crisis, the importance of investing in innovation and research is increasingly been emphasized. But how much money is enough and where should it be spent? EUobserver investigates.

EU innovation efforts unknown

The efforts of the EU to turn the old continent into an “innovation union” are largely unknown to business leaders, according to a survey by global accounting firm Ernst & Young.

US yet to push on Nord Stream 2 sanctions

Washington would still like to block a planned gas pipeline between Russia and Germany but is not yet considering hitting companies involved in the project.

News in Brief

  1. EU leaders expected to approve Brexit future talks guidelines
  2. Tusk: EU must 'continue to engage' with US on trade
  3. European elections set for 23-26 May 2019
  4. EU tries to find common candidate for top UN food job
  5. Facebook post triggers Norway no-confidence vote
  6. Merkel: 'no reason' to sanction Schroeder for Russia support
  7. MEPs and Council strike deal on posted workers' rights
  8. EU parliament to investigate Facebook data 'breach'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EUobserverHiring - Sales Associate With 2+ Years Experience - Apply Now!
  2. EUobserverHiring - Finance Officer With Accounting Degree or Experience - Apply Now!
  3. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  4. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  5. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  7. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  8. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  9. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  10. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights
  11. ACCAAppropriate Risk Management is Crucial for Effective Strategic Leadership
  12. EPSUWill the Circular Economy be an Economy With no Workers?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressThe 2018 European Medal of Tolerance Goes to Prince Albert II of Monaco
  2. FiscalNoteGlobal Policy Trends: What to Watch in 2018
  3. Human Rights and Democracy NetworkPromoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Next Eu Multiannual Financial Framework
  4. Mission of China to the EUDigital Cooperation a Priority for China-EU Relations
  5. ECTACompetition must prevail in the quest for telecoms investment
  6. European Friends of ArmeniaTaking Stock of 30 Years of EU Policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: How Can the EU Contribute to Peace?
  7. ILGA EuropeCongratulations Finland!
  8. UNICEFCyclone Season Looms Over 720,000 Rohingya Children in Myanmar & Bangladesh
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationEU Court: EU Commission Correct to Issue Guidelines for Online Gambling Services
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina Hopes for More Exchanges With Nordic, Baltic Countries
  11. Macedonian Human Rights MovementCondemns Facebook for Actively Promoting Anti-Macedonian Racism
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal Seed Vault: Gene Banks Gather to Celebrate 1 Million Seed Collections