Building the future of EU strategic foresight - Speech by Vice-President Šefčovič at the annual conference of the European Policy and Strategy Analysis System

Source: European Commission (EC) i, published on Wednesday, November 18 2020.

First of all, my thanks to President Sassoli i for his kind words, and to Anthony Teasdale for helping to reinforce the ESPAS community over the past few years.

It is crucial that we work together across EU i institutions - and also with our partners - to build a resilient Union in the face of significant long-term challenges and palpable uncertainty.

We cannot expect the future to become less disruptive. Recent months have taught us that we need to equip ourselves with the means to tackle whatever challenges may arise, while keeping a political eye on any warning signs on the horizon.

This is what strategic foresight is about. Anticipating - exploring - and ultimately, acting, in a collaborative manner.

At the start of the mandate, even before COVID-19 emerged, President von der Leyen had asked me to lead our efforts to put strategic foresight at the heart of EU policy making.

It now forms part of our toolbox and helps us prepare major initiatives, by keeping the long-term objective of boosting resilience at the core of our short-term decision-making across all policy areas.

Before the pandemic, we were aware of the challenges posed by changing climate, facing our liberal democracies, or created by new technologies. COVID-19 has accelerated many of these mega-trends.

For instance, hyper-connectivity. As soon as the pandemic hit, over a third of the EU's labour force shifted to teleworking. Global internet traffic surged by almost 40 percent between February and mid-April.

Meanwhile, the amount of data generated worldwide is set to grow to around 175 billion terabytes by 2025.

And yet, we live in an attention economy. As a recent JRC study showed, our attention online is a precious commodity and most of the information we consume is shaped and curated by algorithms.

According to the same study, 48 percent of Europeans use social media daily or almost daily. While these platforms have revolutionised the way we experience politics - by engaging more people - they also allow for the rapid dissemination of polarising and unreliable information. This negatively impacts our democracies.

In fact, democracies are in the minority globally for the first time since 2001 - according to the V-Dem Institute, down from 55 percent of countries ten years ago to 48 percent today. The competition between political systems is fiercer than ever.

It should prompt us to carefully assess what our future partners, levers, options and strategies will be.

This is just one example of a cross-cutting topic where strategic foresight can deepen our understanding of the dynamics at play across policy tracks.

That is why resilience took centre-stage in the first Commission annual Strategic Foresight Report, adopted in September. It sought to identify what COVID-19 has taught us about Europe's geopolitical, green, digital, and social and economic resilience - where we are vulnerable, what capacities we have, and how to make the most of opportunities.

But resilience cannot act as a policy compass without proper monitoring. Our report therefore proposed new prototype dashboards, to be further developed with Member States - to assess and monitor resilience across the four dimensions.

We need to be able to answer a simple question over time: are our policies effectively making the EU more resilient?

The next report will offer comprehensive new resilience dashboards. But it will also provide in-depth analysis on our open strategic autonomy - clarifying the concept, identifying strategic dependencies, and proposing ways to reduce them.

This too is relevant across policy areas, while making clear that we do not have a protectionist or anti-transatlantic agenda.

Take our inability to counter India's recent export ban of thirteen active pharmaceutical ingredients. This raises policy questions - and a range of options - related not only to trade, but also diversification of supply chains; intensification of ties with key partners; increase of strategic reserves; re-shoring of production when and where necessary; development of substitutes through innovation, and so on.

Open strategic autonomy is defined by:

  • our ability to reduce dependencies and strengthen the security of supply of key strategic assets,
  • while preserving the benefits of an open economy and supporting our partners around the globe.

To boost Europe's open strategic autonomy, we need a long-term vision, whilst embarking on collaborative short-term actions, such as launching industrial alliances in batteries, raw materials, or hydrogen; shaping global economic governance and multilateralism; or building a health union.

It all requires a robust, dynamic and comprehensive assessment of key criticalities and strategic pathways. I hope to work closely with all of you on this.

Another forward-looking exercise I propose is the twinning of the green and digital transition.

For instance, we know that digital transformation currently has a carbon footprint price. Last year, data centres and data transmission networks accounted for some 2 percent of global electricity use.

Digital technologies, however, could also help reduce global emissions by up to 15 percent through innovation in the manufacturing, building, agriculture, services and transport sectors.

Artificial Intelligence and space technologies - notably Copernicus, our earth observation system - can be deployed to greatly facilitate the green transition.

The development of interoperable European cloud and edge infrastructure would reduce our digital energy needs, while helping ensure the EU's technological sovereignty.

In any case, new technologies, will continue to have a huge impact on our societies. Many people are already looking to future steps forward, such as quantum computing. But can we assess where our competitive advantage lies and how best to exploit it?

At the same time, it is crucial to ensure we are not chasing technologies without addressing persisting problems - the skills gap and the challenges of creating an innovation-friendly entrepreneurial environment in Europe.

If we are seeking to shape the future of jobs, we need to take a systemic view of the labour market shifts driven not only by the digital, but also the green transition - something largely missing now. This concerns low-tech as well as high tech skills and should be addressed concurrently with our policies in education, a socially just transition and legal migration.

To make the overall picture clearer, we are developing a set of reference foresight scenarios on the future of the EU. We want to use this to stress-test policy ideas, assess our strengths and vulnerabilities, and reflect on which strategies we should apply going forward.

The scenarios could even become an integral part of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen, the European Commission is the first major public administration to bring strategic foresight into the highest political level. But if we want to succeed, it must be a truly collaborative exercise.

With this in mind, I am launching an EU-wide Strategic Foresight Network, which will see EU institutions, Member States, think tanks, academia, civil society, and international organisations joining forces.

First, the network will help share best practices and build evidence-based anticipatory capacities in each Member State. Second, we will work together on foresight projects of common interest.

As I often say, foresight is not about the next election, but about the next generation. I very much look forward to working with you on this important endeavour in the months and years to come.

Thank you very much.