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Incoming EU innovation chief vows to sharpen Europe's competitive edge in parliament hearing

European Commissioner-designate Iliana Ivanova faced questions from MEPs on Tuesday morning.
European Commissioner-designate Iliana Ivanova faced questions from MEPs on Tuesday morning. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Iliana Ivanova, Bulgaria's designated European Commissioner, vowed to put the European Union "back in the race" for global leadership in new technologies as she delivered her bid to lead the bloc's innovation and research portfolio.

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Questioned on Tuesday morning by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who will hold a final vote on her candidature during a plenary session next week, Ivanova pitched her plans to boost EU investment in research and innovation (R&I), foster education and skills and promote European culture.

The 47-year-old was nominated as the next European Commissioner for research and innovation following Mariya Gabriel's surprising decision to leave the post in May to become Bulgaria's foreign affairs minister.

Ivanova was previously a member of the European Court of Auditors, and served as an MEP for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) between 2009 to 2012, acting as vice-chair of the budget committee and the parliament's delegation to China.

Her candidature comes as Brussels enters its last leg of the legislative term, with little time for new initiatives before the European elections take place in June next year. 

"I do realise the weight of responsibility that comes with delivering so much in a short period of time," Ivanova told MEPs.

Putting Europe 'back in the race'

During the three-hour-long hearing, Ivanova pitched plans to sharpen Europe’s competitive edge, recognising that the EU is lagging behind its competitors.

"Europe is a scientific powerhouse, it has the best researchers and innovators in the world (...) we support deep-tech innovators that turn into million- and billion-euro companies," Ivanova told MEPs.

"However, our research and innovation landscape still remains fragmented. Investments have remained below the 3% of GDP target and well below some of those of our main global competitors."

If appointed, she will inherit responsibility for managing Horizon Europe, the EU's flagship €95.5-billion programme, which funds R&I projects aimed at boosting economic growth and industrial competitiveness. The programme, however, has long been criticised for its lack of transparency in spending and excessive red tape for research institutes when accessing funds. 

Ivanova proposed simplifying the funding process through more lump sum payments and redoubling efforts to raise more funds from public and private investments, including from other parts of the bloc's common budget.

"It's high time Horizon Europe be used to ensure we can be trailblazers at a global level," she said. "I commit to being the guardian of efficient investments."

As things stand, only 30% of high-quality proposals submitted to the programme can be funded under the existing budget. 

She also committed to ensuring that SMEs benefit more from research funding and that member states with low participation rates in research programmes have more opportunities to join ongoing R&I activities through the so-called "hop-on facility."

'Protecting Horizon Europe'

Ivanova addressed mounting concerns that the European Commission could repurpose its research funds for geopolitical reasons. In April, €75 million in research funding was diverted from Horizon Europe to finance the semiconductor industry under the EU Chips Act. Two months later, in mid-June, the executive prohibited Chinese companies including Huawei and ZTE from accessing EU research funds.

Responding to a question by MEP Christian Ehler of the centre-right EPP group, Ivanova said she "hears the concerns of the research community about what will happen with Horizon Europe."

"I will engage to strongly defend the Horizon Europe budget to serve the objectives of the programme," she said.

But she claimed that despite recent "flexibilities" in the Commission's approach to Horizon Europe funding, "so far no transfer of funds have happened, and I commit to ensure that does not happen."

European Union, 2023.
The parliamentary hearing is an essential step for confirming a new European Commissioner.European Union, 2023.

Partnering with like-minded countries

Another issue high on the Commissioner-designate's to-do list will be to strengthen collaboration on R&I with what she called "like-minded" partner countries.

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"Creating stronger ties with like-minded countries is essential in this challenging geopolitical context and associating them to Union programs is key," she said responding in writing to MEPs' questions.

Talks with Switzerland and the UK on their association with the Horizon Europe programme are ongoing, and negotiations with British counterparts are expected to conclude in September. 

Ivanova said these partnerships can attract further private investments.

Education, culture and sport

If she receives the parliament's seal of approval next week, Ivanova will also be responsible for overseeing investments in education and skills, implementing cultural programmes such as Creative Europe, and promoting European sports.

She cited concerns about "deteriorating basic skills and challenges in the teaching profession," vowing to drive forward EU initiatives to boost skills crucial for the green and digital transitions, including the Digital Education Action Plan.

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Despite culture and sport being seen as the lower-priority responsibilities in her portfolio, MEPs quizzed Ivanova about her commitment to upholding creative professions, protecting the status of the EU's minority languages, and promoting the role of sport in healthy lifestyles.

Referring to the recent controversy in Spain over Football Federation President Luis Rubiales' non-consensual kiss with female football player Jenni Hermoso, Green MEP Diana Riba i Giner asked Ivanova how she would address structural "machismo" and gender representation gaps in sports authorities in the EU.

Ivanova said she would address gender inequality in the sector and across her portfolio, referring to the Commission's High-Level Group on Gender Equality in sport as a potential tool to ensure equal participation.

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