Ladies and Gentlemen,
Señoras y Señores,
I am pleased to address you today at the Quo Vadis Europa session.
For more than twenty years now, Quo Vadis Europa has given us the opportunity to take the pulse of our continent, to have a stimulating debate on the future of our European project.
Let us not forget that the European Union remains, in essence, a political construction based on a community of interests, often technological: coal, steel and atomic energy 60 years ago, Airbus and Galileo later, today hydrogen, batteries or of course vaccines...
This European construction must be constantly revisited in the light of the major commotions that mark our history. And the pandemic we are experiencing is one of these major commotions.
It is up to us to draw the first lessons from this crisis. Because it is not only a health, economic and societal crisis: the pandemic is also a breaking point in the way we conceive our place in the world.
It heralds a new geopolitical order, or at least an acute awareness of the current geostrategic balances. These will determine, in the very near future, our resilience and leadership.
In this new geopolitical order, Europe acts like a strategist rather than just a market. It remains open, but on its own terms. It makes its own choices and draws up its own rules, and is not afraid of imposing them on its partners.
We have entered a global race in which the mastery of technologies is central. It is largely thanks to disruptive technologies that Europe will be able to embark fully on its twin green and digital transition, while guaranteeing its resilience and autonomy.
I would therefore like to thank the High Representative of the Union, my colleague and friend Josep Borrell, for inviting me to speak to you about a subject that is not only close to my heart – you may be aware of my interest in disruptive technologies – but which I believe is also crucial for our collective future.
Investing in disruptive technologies is investing in our future
The geopolitics of technology is at the heart of our supply chains and of our ability to scale up industrially and capture the markets of the future.
Take the example of rare earths and other critical raw materials that are essential to many of our green and digital technologies.
I am thinking in particular of the production of permanent magnets. They are critical for our automotive industry, renewable energies, defence and aerospace – but we are almost entirely dependent on imports from China. The same applies to lithium, batteries and semiconductors, where we have untapped potential in Europe.
That is why our European Raw Materials Alliance, launched last year, aims to secure our access to critical and strategic raw materials through new external partnerships and by exploring sustainable mining opportunities in Europe.
We have already identified investment opportunities across 17 European countries worth €10 billion.
We need to achieve the same ambition in the field of hydrogen.
There is no doubt that Europe is leading the way in research and development in this field. But the projects we have carried out so far have not yet led to industrial leadership.
And let's be clear: if we lose any more time, it will be our current competitors – the United States, China, Korea, Japan – who will sell us their products.
But I am far from pessimistic. We have a unique opportunity to shape the future of the hydrogen economy. But to do this, we also need to make the best use of existing decarbonised energy.
I am, as you may have guessed, referring to nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is available, abundant, and cheap. We should use this transitional energy to facilitate the deployment of a clean hydrogen industry in Europe.
In concrete terms, I am thinking of the possibility of using existing nuclear reactors at the scheduled end of their service life, while of course respecting all safety standards. This would mean disconnecting the reactors from the grid and using the energy they produce exclusively to run electrolysers and thus produce clean hydrogen, until the nuclear plant is shut down for good - before it is dismantled. This would allow a new industry to emerge until sufficient renewable energy is deployed.
Bringing breakthrough projects to fruition in key sectors
The promotion of clean hydrogen is typically the kind of disruptive project around which Europeans can come together. But there are other examples, particularly in the digital sector.
Connected cars, smartphones, 5G, cloud, Internet of Things... Semiconductors are at the heart of the digital and green transformation of our industry and economy. Yet Europe has dropped from a 40% market share in the 1990s to 10% today.
We urgently need to reposition Europe in this critical technology. This is essential to avoid exposing our industrial ecosystems, as we are seeing with the current shortage of semiconductors.
I am thinking of course of the automotive industry: several of our production plants simply had to shut down because of a lack of components. And 10% of this year’s demand may not be met.
This example fully illustrates the meaning and importance of what we call technological sovereignty. Without it, we will remain too exposed to the ups and downs of the world.
The same applies to data, which undoubtedly marks the beginning of a new industrial revolution.
The mastery of data – processing, storage, sharing – and of related IT technologies, in particular the cloud and the edge, will play a decisive role in the implementation of our ambition for our industry and our single market.
These are all issues that the new Alliances on microprocessors and industrial data will have to tackle head on, in order to yield concrete projects.
Because industrial alliances are a concrete and operational lever to bring together all the players in our value chains in order to identify, shape and accomplish the most innovative and structuring projects.
They also enable partners to be mobilised around Important Projects of Common European Interest. This mechanism facilitates the emergence of disruptive, multi-country projects, where the market cannot do it alone, and which can benefit from public funding. They also allow SMEs and innovative start-ups to take part in adventures that go beyond their usual field of activity.
Supporting European technologies with a regulatory arsenal
As you see, the European Commission is deploying its entire industrial toolbox. But that is not enough. We must also equip ourselves with a regulatory arsenal that helps turn our industrial ambition into reality.
A few examples:
I mentioned data just now. We recently proposed a regulation on European data governance. With this proposal, we are defining an alternative model to that of integrated platforms. A governance model that is more likely to establish real trust.
We will complemented this proposal with an initiative at the end of this year to promote data sharing between companies, and between companies and public authorities.
In the field of artificial intelligence, we tabled proposals in April to reinforce Europe's leadership position for safe, inclusive, trustworthy and human-centred artificial intelligence.
Beyond digital, the EU has put a new mechanism in place to safeguard the Union's interests in the most strategic sectors: the Foreign Direct Investment screening mechanism, which has been operational since the end of last year.
In the same spirit, the Commission has proposed to better control foreign subsidies in acquisitions and public procurement, to make sure that all companies compete on an equal footing in our own Single Market.
Finally, we will soon present a new standardisation strategy. In French we say "qui fait la norme, détient le marché”: “who makes the standard holds the market". This is what we did over thirty years ago with the GSM standard for mobile phones.
If we want to ensure Europe's technological sovereignty in crucial disruptive sectors such as 5G, batteries, hydrogen or quantum technology, we must occupy the field of standard-setting. We must become standard-makers, and not just standard-takers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to conclude by returning to the question we are being asked today: "Which team is Europe playing for?”
To answer this question, I would like to take the example of what we are doing in the field of vaccines.
In a few months, we have succeeded in ramping up Europe's industrial capacities in record time. This is an incredible achievement, let's not be afraid to admit it.
Europe is now not only the world's leading producer of vaccines, but also – because this, too, must be remembered – we export half of our production to the rest of the world.
So, in short: "Team Europe" is playing for its fellow citizens, but it is also playing for “Team World".
Because, while we must look after the future of our fellow Europeans, we also have a responsibility towards the international community: a duty of solidarity, of sharing, of fairness. And this is particularly true for science and technology.
Technological geopolitics is like a mountain ridge, where our values and our interests meet; where the 'soft power' that characterises us meets a new 'hard power'. A ‘hard power’ that we also want to infuse the European Union with to establish ourselves as a partner – but one that is proud of its strengths and ready to defend them in a fiercely competitive global scene.
I am convinced that Europe can walk this ridge with confidence.