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“Strength in diversity”

EU Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska on the development of the industry clusters in Europe

What is your approach to the new challenges of SME, when it comes to competitiveness and skills?

Only about a quarter of European companies are highly digitalised and the digitalisation rate is not growing as quickly as in the US or South-East Asia. There is also a shortage of IT-skilled workers in most EU countries.
We are working on several fronts to enhance the uptake of digitalisation and associated advanced technologies – for example through improving the investment climate, facilitating knowledge-sharing and ensuring workers have the skills needed by our industry.

Our proposal for the new long-term budget will help streamline and align the different Commission actions to tackle these issues. For example, the Digital Europe Programme aims at increasing the digitalisation rate among European businesses. It should dedicate €2.5 billion to foster digitalisation. Our COSME programme will also help small businesses to benefit from digitalisation.

Our overall goal is that by 2020 the EU as a whole, public and private sectors combined, invests €20 billion in artificial intelligence (AI). Over the following decade, we aim for investments of more than €20 billion per year.

We also need to master advanced technologies to create intra-EU value chains. The Industry 2030 high-level group and the Strategic Forum for Important Projects of Common European Interest are working to identify trends and foster joint investments in strategic value chains in Europe. The Forum will focus on six areas: Connected, clean and autonomous vehicles, Smart health, Low-carbon industry, Hydrogen technologies and systems, Industrial Internet of Things, Cyber-security. This will complement initiatives to strengthen the value chains for batteries, microelectronics, and high-performance computing.

“On the knowledge-sharing, clusters play an important role”

On the knowledge-sharing, clusters play an important role. They are groups of specialised enterprises and other innovation actors, such as universities, that cooperate closely together in a particular location. In addition, the new Digital Innovation Hubs will support and advise European businesses on their path to digitalisation. On data-sharing, we want to ensure that secure and high-quality data is accessible. We have two pilot projects in the pipeline looking into which business models arise from proprietary data.

Digitalisation also requires a big shift in tech-related skills and talents. The Skills Agenda for Europe sets out our strategic approach for sectoral skills strategies. Pilots already started in 2018 in the automotive, space, maritime, tourism and textile sectors. More will follow in 2019 and 2020.

How can Europe keep pace with the rapid development of global competitors?

We are aware of our global competition – their digitalisation speed is very good, and they quickly roll out new technologies, including AI. When it comes to data, the fuel of AI, US companies collect and put to use immense amounts of data, a lot of it from European citizens. China also has a different view on data privacy compared to Europe, which allows access to massive sets of public data among others.
In turn, we play on our own strengths. With the General Data Protection Regulation, we clarify how data is handled between companies and consumers, creating a climate of trust and predictability, which are essential to a thriving business environment.

European businesses, in particular SMEs, are very diverse and we need to reach out to them by going local. This is the purpose of our cluster policy. With our actions, we are supporting business ecosystems favourable to innovation and modernisation. In turn, this encourages the development of new industrial chains and of emerging industries. Via clusters, we build on each country’s or region’s strengths. It is a policy that truly embodies strength in diversity.

What is the core of EU’s industrial policy?

Industry has always been subject to technological and structural change. However, digitalisation, automation, advanced manufacturing, decarbonisation and the introduction of new business models have recently accelerated the pace of industrial transformation and the need for industrial modernisation.This requires investments as well as development of dynamic ecosystems for innovation at regional level. The industrial transformation takes place on regional level and regional authorities are crucial in creating the most favourable conditions in their territories.

“Regions and industry need to work together along new value chains.”

In this context, smart specialisation is a promising tool to design and implement a strategic approach for research and innovation at regional level. But regions and industry also need to work together with other partners along new value chains. This will allow them to find complementary resources, share risks and save costs. Moreover, interregional cooperation will help less advanced regions as well.

To facilitate interregional cooperation, we established the Smart Specialisation Platform for industrial modernisation. It involves regional authorities, clusters, and industry around common smart specialisation areas. So far, 20 interregional partnerships have been established involving more than 80 regions.

We facilitate this working process by mobilising different EU actions (provision of experts, matchmaking events, calls for proposals, etc.) at every stage of the work.

One of the discussions at HANNOVER MESSE is on the free flow of trade and FDI. What is your point of view?

Let me start by saying that on the global stage, Europe stands for free, open and rules-based trade. The EU together with its international partners has immensely benefited from free trade flows and open markets. Today, there are a number of challenges standing in front of us and we are not being naïve about these challenges. The Commission is working hard to make sure our industry enjoys a global level playing field. We are leading the reform of the World Trade Organisation, we have concluded a number of bilateral trade agreements, we have updated our trade defence instruments and we made a revised proposal in 2016 to ensure reciprocity in international procurement. The EU will also soon have in place the first European framework to screen foreign investment.
Foreign investment is essential to the health of the European economy; it is an important source of jobs and innovation. At the same time, it is clear that we have to address the security risk posed by certain investments in critical assets, technologies and infrastructure. There has been much talk about recent acquisitions by Chinese investors, although the bulk of foreign investments in the EU continues to come from countries such as the US, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia and Japan. More than the origin, what matters is the impact of the foreign investment on the EU’s security and public order. Thanks to the adoption of the European framework for screening FDI, we are strengthening our collective capacity to identify issues and respond when investments from a non-EU country threaten our strategic interests.

What about e-mobility as challenge for employment in the EU?

The EU automotive sector is not only a global leader in innovation and manufacturing, but also a provider of many highly skilled jobs. Around 3.3 million people are employed directly in the manufacturing of motor vehicles and components and around 4.3 million people are employed in the value chain. The sector is facing many challenges that will have a dramatic impact on the workforce. On-going trends such as digitalisation, electrification, connected and automated mobility and the automation of production processes will bring changes.

“We aim to help regions and industry to reskill its workforce”

We are addressing this issue through the Blueprint for Sectorial Cooperation on Skills programme, bringing together businesses, trade unions, research and education institutions and public authorities. In January 2018, we launched the ‘DRIVES Sector Skills Alliance’ to look at future skill needs in the automotive sector at all levels of the value chain. It is a four-year project led by the Technicka Univerzita in Czechia. It will identify future skill needs, gaps and areas where retraining will be needed. It will also develop a strategy with practical tools to help industry, regional authorities and education institutes to address these needs.
Another 18-month project has just been launched to look at identifying best practices for handling skill issues for automotive SMEs, and a call for proposals for establishing a new Sector Skills Alliance for the e-mobility battery sector will close shortly.

Together, all these initiatives will provide a comprehensive overview of the skills requirements across the EU with a range of best practices and other tools to help regions and industry reskill its workforce and meet new skill needs.

A personal question: After all this years, is there any specific memory of HANNOVER MESSE which comes to your mind?

Coming to the Hannover Messe has been a highlight of my every year’s agenda. During all these years being here gave me the possibility to engage with all the most important partners from the different industry sectors. It also gave me the chance to hear about the great progress being made and the possibilities out there. But also to hear about what still needs to be done.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska is a Polish politician. She has served as Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Regional Development and Transport. In 2014, she was nominated by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as a European Commissioner