Free movement of research and innovation will be central to renewing Europe’s Single Market

Strategic report on the future of the European Single Market points to key role for European research and innovation.

By  Horizon Staff

The European Single Market is considered one of the EU’s biggest accomplishments – and for good reason. It enables EU citizens to travel, live, work, study, retire, trade and do business wherever they wish. Simply put, the European Single Market makes the daily lives of European consumers and businesses much easier.

In his recently published report to the European Commission and the European Council, ‘Much more than a market’, former Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, argues that the four ‘freedoms’ set out in the original proposal for a European Single Market – free movement of goods, services, people and capital – fall short of what is needed in today’s world.

He calls for a necessary ‘fifth freedom’ to be added to the original four – the free movement of research, innovation, knowledge, and education. In the face of the 21st century’s challenges and opportunities, this added pillar of the Single Market will be crucial to harness the full potential of the European Union in the area of global innovation and a knowledge-based economy.

Letta is the President of the Delors Institute, a European think tank founded in 1996 by former President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. Letta points out that the world has evolved rapidly since Delors first conceived of and presented the European Single Market in 1985. The number of countries in the EU has more than doubled and global competition is fierce. Therefore, the capacity to innovate will be vital to ensuring Europe remains competitive.

Letta proposes to address the ongoing fragmentation of research efforts in Europe through support to dynamic transnational and cross-sectoral public-private partnerships, shared high-level research infrastructures and the pooling of data in an open science approach. This would create a competitive environment for frontier research and allow for the effective translation of research into new businesses and technologies.

Many of Letta’s conclusions, including the need for an open market for research and innovation in Europe, are expected to be echoed in the report of another Italian ex-premier, Mario Draghi, on the future of European competitiveness.

Enrico Letta spoke with Horizon Magazine about his report, the need to adapt the Single Market to contemporary challenges and the benefits of investing in research, innovation, and education to maintain Europe’s competitiveness.

As President of the Delors Institute, how do you feel that your report builds on the legacy of Jacques Delors in conceiving the European Single Market in the 1980s?

Jacques Delors’ vision in the 1980s was to create a unified European market that eliminated trade barriers, promoted competition, and fostered cooperation and solidarity among EU Member States. My report ‘Much more than a market’ builds on this legacy by recognising that the Single Market must evolve to address contemporary challenges. We propose introducing a ‘fifth freedom’ dedicated to the free movement of research, innovation, knowledge, and education, ensuring that Europe remains competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. This addition is in line with Delors’ principles of integration and innovation, but adapted to the demands of the 21st century, emphasising the need for a dynamic and resilient Single Market.

Your report followed over 400 meetings with experts and stakeholders across Europe between September 2023 and April 2024. What did you enjoy most about these meetings, and what did you learn?

The most enjoyable aspect of these meetings was the vibrant and diverse perspectives shared by stakeholders across Europe. These interactions were an invaluable source of insights, revealing both common aspirations and unique local challenges. I learned that while there is widespread support for deeper integration and innovation within the Single Market, there are also significant concerns about ensuring that the benefits are equitably distributed. The active listening and open discussions emphasised the necessity of a cohesive yet adaptable approach to European policymaking.

How has Europe’s place in the world changed since the 1980s, and why do you feel that going forward the Single Market needs a ‘fifth freedom’ dedicated to the free movement of research, innovation, knowledge, and education?

Since the 1980s, Europe has seen its share of the global economy diminish, particularly in the face of rising Asian economies. The international landscape has become more competitive and complex, necessitating a re-evaluation of our strategies. The introduction of a ‘fifth freedom’ is crucial to harnessing the full potential of Europe’s research and innovation capabilities. This new freedom would promote a more integrated and efficient ecosystem for knowledge dissemination and technological advancement, positioning Europe as a leader in global innovation and ensuring sustainable economic growth.

Why are research and innovation important for Europe’s competitiveness? What links do you see between your report and the upcoming report from Mario Draghi?

Research and innovation are vital for maintaining Europe’s competitive edge in the global market. They drive technological advancements, improve productivity, and create high-quality jobs. My report’s emphasis on the ‘fifth freedom’ aligns with Mario Draghi’s upcoming report on European competitiveness, as both advocate for significant investments in research and development. Our collective aim is to create a robust framework that supports sustainable growth and positions Europe at the forefront of global technological innovation.

How could the ‘fifth freedom’ help the EU to tackle the green and digital transitions, as well as promote public health?

The ‘fifth freedom’ would facilitate the free movement of knowledge and innovation, essential for addressing the green and digital transitions. By fostering an environment conducive to research and innovation, we can accelerate the development and deployment of green technologies and digital solutions. Additionally, enhanced collaboration in the healthcare sector would improve public health outcomes by ensuring swift dissemination of medical research and innovations across EU Member States.

What other practical benefits could the ‘fifth freedom’ bring for researchers and innovators in Europe?

The ‘fifth freedom’ would create a more integrated research environment, reducing bureaucratic barriers and enabling easier access to funding and resources. Researchers and innovators would benefit from increased mobility and collaboration opportunities, fostering a more dynamic and productive research community. This would not only enhance the quality of research, but also ensure that innovations are swiftly brought to market, driving economic growth and societal advancement.

Why is it important for the EU to invest in research and innovation, and what kind of financial means do you think we need in order to preserve Europe’s place in the global economy?

Investing in research and innovation is crucial for maintaining Europe’s competitive advantage and fostering sustainable economic growth. We need a combination of public and private investments to support this sector. The creation of a Savings and Investments Union, as proposed in my report, would help mobilise the necessary financial resources. Additionally, leveraging existing EU funds and creating new financing mechanisms would ensure that we have the means to support ambitious research and innovation projects.

How did EU heads of state and government react to your report at the European Council meeting in April?

The reaction to my report was generally positive. There was a strong recognition of the need to adapt the Single Market to contemporary challenges and the benefits of introducing a ‘fifth freedom’. Heads of state and government acknowledged the importance of investing in research, innovation, and education to maintain Europe’s competitiveness. They expressed support for the proposals and committed to further discussions on the practical implementation of the recommendations.

You have been keeping up a busy schedule of speaking engagements across Europe since the publication of your report in April. What feedback have you received so far?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with stakeholders from various sectors expressing strong support for the ideas presented in the report. There is a shared understanding of the necessity to enhance the Single Market through the proposed ‘fifth freedom’. Many have appreciated the comprehensive and forward-looking nature of the report, recognising it as a crucial step towards a more integrated and competitive Europe. Additionally, there have been constructive suggestions on how to refine and implement the proposals, reflecting a deep engagement with the report’s vision.

The views of the interviewees don’t necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.

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This article was originally published in Horizon the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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