MGQ and Innovation Ireland

by Shane Fitzgerald

How can the EU help build a Smart Economy?

Members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs recently congratulated Maire Geoghegan Quinn (known to a generation of Irish journalists as MGQ) on her appointment as Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. The appointment has met with a positive response from Irish commentators both because of MGQ’s perceived competence and because of the relative importance of the portfolio, not to mention its “appropriateness” to Ireland’s stated policies and priorities.

Research and innovation are at the centre of José Manuel Barroso’s EU2020 strategy, which has three key themes: creating value by basing growth on knowledge; empowering people in inclusive societies; and creating a competitive, connected and greener economy. The Commission is currently holding a public consultation on this strategy and plans to make a detailed proposal to the Spring European Council in 2010. It is envisaged that new integrated guidelines and policy priorities will then replace those in force under the Lisbon Strategy since 2005.

This process chimes well with Ireland’s ambition to create a ‘smart economy’ based on strategic investments in specific areas of science such as biopharmaceuticals and green technologies. Ireland’s plan is to “invest heavily in research and development, incentivise multinational companies to locate more R&D capacity in Ireland, and ensure the commercialisation and retaining of ideas that flow from that investment.” Just as at the European level, the idea is to foster a dynamic and exemplary research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem.

One of MGQ’s main responsibilities will be managing the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development 2007-2013 (FP7), a programme with an overall budget of more than €50 billion. According to the Irish Times, 418 Irish organisations (ranging from multinationals to small and medium-sized enterprises, educational institutions and civil society organisations) benefited from FP7 to the tune of €107 million in 2007 and 2008. Though this figure is dwarfed by the colossal sums we are all now familiar with due to Ireland’s budgetary and banking woes, this type of targeted investment can have a remarkable multiplier effect, and should be welcomed and encouraged.

Although Commissioners are prohibited from favouring projects in or seeking political advantages for their home states, MGQ’s new profile and position within the international research and innovation community is likely to benefit Irish academia and enterprise in subtler ways. Rightly or wrongly, Commissioners are often associated with a particular national ‘style’ (witness President Sarkozy’s triumphant emphasis on Michel Barnier’s appointment to the Internal Markets and Services post as a victory for ‘French’ social democracy at the expense of ‘British’ neo-liberalism). Equally, nomination to a certain portfolio leads to enhanced awareness of its contents at home, as domestic media will always report the goings-on of ‘our guy’ in Brussels. So this is good news for those of us who would like to see a greater emphasis on the innovation agenda in Ireland, and for those of us who want Ireland Inc. to be more closely linked to that agenda internationally.

MGQ’s appointment also comes a few months ahead of the scheduled publication of the European Innovation Act, which aims to put in place general principles that will create a coherent policy on innovation. It will be interesting to see who launches the Act, given that it is currently being drafted by DG Industry and Entrepeneurship but is so clearly within MGQ’s remit. President Barosso has said of her new position that it entails “not only the management, implementation of all the policy of research and science … but also cross-cutting a horizontal responsibility on innovation”. Perhaps this Act represents an initial opportunity for innovative cross-collaboration within the Commission?

Before taking up her post, MGQ will have to persuade the European Parliament of her suitability in hearings between January 11 and 19. The Parliament cannot reject Commissioners individually but must rather reject the entire team (seeArthur Beesley in the Irish Times for further discussion of this issue). Its final vote is scheduled for January 26. The new Commission’s term will then run until 31 October 2014.

Ms. Geoghegan-Quinn comes to the post with a strong domestic profile, having become the first female cabinet minister in 1979, going on to serve as Minister of State for European Affairs, Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications, and Minister for Justice. She retired from politics in 1997 to embark upon a career in the private sector, but in 2000 moved to Luxembourg to take up a post at the European Court of Auditors, where she has worked until now. In recent news, she has appointed Irishman John Bell – currently heading the cabinet of the outgoing Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva – as her chef de cabinet.

 This article was first published by the Institute of International and European Affairs. Access the original here.