Window of opportunity
by Jan Palmowski
Mariya Gabriel has a chance to make universities central to EU policy. In the weeks following Mariya Gabriel’s nomination as Commissioner for Innovation and Youth, it was her job description that caught critics’ attention. It was a curious title for a portfolio that includes lifelong learning. A broad coalition, from Nobel prize winners and university presidents to European Parliament president David Sassoli, also objected to the conspicuous omission of research and education. But what about Gabriel’s own priorities? Gabriel’s hearing at the European Parliament on 30 September was no formality. It was part of a process of scrutiny that has so far rejected three candidates proposed by incoming Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
The Parliament, which elected von der Leyen with a wafer-thin majority, has been flexing its muscles. Gabriel’s three-hour grilling by MEPs offered a roadmap for her priorities, for which she will be held to account. As their support for the European Universities Initiative, which aims to build international networks of institutions, shows, European governments and leaders have rarely been so attentive to universities. They recognise, for example, the popularity of the Erasmus mobility
scheme among young voters and future influencers.
At the hearing, Gabriel grasped that now is a perfect moment to corral EU member states into action to realise a European Education Area, and to link this to a new vision for the existing plans to create a European Research Area. Both are needed, Gabriel noted, to ensure that the best minds stay in Europe. Gabriel emphasised that Horizon Europe needs to maintain a balance between research and innovation. She was robust in her defence of the European Research Council, and stressed the importance of frontier-led research for the second pillar of Horizon Europe.
This will receive over half of the programme’s budget, and aims to address the challenges our societies face, and boost industrial capacity. Responding to a challenge from Green MEP Gina Dowding, Gabriel stressed that research’s capacity to find solutions we aren't yet aware of was crucial in order to reach targets to fight climate change.
Gabriel is clearly more at ease than her predecessor Carlos Moedas with making the case for frontier-led, collaborative research. And while sharing Moedas’s commitment to the European Innovation Council,
she also emphasised the pivotal importance of education for innovation. Europe’s companies, from start-ups to corporations, depend on the skills and creativity of Europe’s graduates.