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Van Rompuy: Europeans too depressed to be innovative

  • A first assessment of innovation policies and country-specific recommendations will be made at the EU summit in June (Photo: Valentina Pop)

If Europe is to remain relevant as an innovative economy, people need to be more positive and entrepreneurial and not let themselves be depressed by the economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures, EU council chairman Herman Van Rompuy has said.

"Innovation has a lot to do with behaviour, risk taking, motivation and education. You can't have a society of very creative people only based on financial stimulus," the former Belgian premier said Wednesday (4 May) during a conference organised by Ernst&Young on innovation and the role of government in supporting it.

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Van Rompuy said that "societal problems in Belgium and elsewhere" in the EU mean that people "live in a climate of despair and are depressed."

But in order for Europe to remain at the cutting edge of innovation in areas ranging from energy to agriculture, services and digital technologies, "we need a dynamic and positive society," based on competition "but also on generosity."

The financial and subsequent economic crises "can help," he said, noting that in the past year, EU institutions have evolved a lot.

"But crisis can be very depressive. Only negative messages from leaders are the wrong message coming out of the crisis. The positive outlook is key for a dynamic society," he stressed.

Noting that according to the EU's own estimates, the bloc will fall behind Asia and the US by 2025 in terms of innovation, Van Rompuy said he will not let EU leaders hide behind nice pledges, after they agreed earlier this year to give priority to areas such as education, innovation and energy.

"We will not allow this process to become a slow bureaucratic exercise, but we will follow it closely," he said.

At an upcoming EU summit mid-June, a first assessment of these policies and country-specific recommendations will be made.

"Early 2012, I want to know what member states concretely did in the one year period to boost innovation, even in harsh times of austerity. What did they do to increase the share of innovative products and services in public procurement, to stimulate green growth, to prove the use of EU funding allocated to research and innovation," Van Rompuy said.

His remarks on lack of innovation in Belgium was echoed by the CEO of the country's national railway company (NMBS), Marc Descheemaecker.

In a video interview for the EUobserver, Descheemaecker said: "Innovation is very important for us, because although we are a classical industry – transport industry – we have to do more – move more people and goods – with fewer means."

"In Belgium we need incentives, partnerships with the government, in order to develop an innovative platform. We have to be more entrepreneurial, we need more new businesses starting up, we need young, fresh, creative people starting up their own businesses – that's a bit lagging behind at this point in time," Descheemaecker said.

When asked why, the CEO said because Belgium has a high standard of living and comfort.

"Need also drives creation. If you are too comfortable, well installed in your sofa, you don't feel the urge to go and start creating, start innovating things," he noted.

His view of the government being an important driver of innovation was however contradicted by Geert Noels, a leading Belgian economist and author of "Econoshocks."

"If innovation would depend on public stimulus and subsidies, it wouldn't be called innovation. It wouldn't be change, because change comes from the people, not from the government," he told this website.

In Noels' view, Belgium has to create an environment "in which people are open to change, and educated to manage that change. But I am a disbeliever that you can subsidise innovation."

Key note speaker Herman Van Rompuy at the Ernst & Young Innovation conference

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS (4 MAY 2011) How can Europe be more innovative? At the first ever Government and Innovation Summit in Brussels on 4 May organised by Ernst & Young, the President of the EU council Herman Van Rompuy offered his views. A survey conducted by CEPS revealed that the EU is putting enough money towards R&D projects, but that this money could be better spent. Innovation expert Charles Leadbeater explained what Europe really needs to boost innovation.

Watch more EUobserver videos here

Watch webcast: here

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