IT gains as the EU goes back to business

After two years of policy-making paralysis it looks like the European Union is back in business.

After two years of policy-making paralysis it looks like the European Union is back in business, and technology is the first area to reap the benefit.

In a marathon two-day meeting at the end of last week, ministers from the EU's 27 countries saved Galileo, Europe's answer to the US' GPS (Global Positioning System), from being scrapped.

They also agreed to step up efforts to improve Europe's fragmented and expensive patents system, gave the European Institute of Technology the political go-ahead and committed almost US$14 billion of EU money to a string of public/private research projects with companies including Nokia, Infineon Technologies and Philips Electronics.

All these policy initiatives have suffered delays in recent years -- along with the whole lawmaking machine in Brussels -- due to the EU's failure to agree on a Constitution in 2005. The EU lost its footing badly that year when France and the Netherlands rejected the text in national referendums.

The Constitution was designed to make sure that the EU could keep functioning after the near doubling of its size in 2004. Without it, decision making in the enlarged EU has become even more arduous.

The debate about the treaty has eclipsed most other issues since 2005, especially long-term issues such as the EU's ability to compete globally. But finally last month political agreement on a re-worked constitutional treaty was reached.

At last week's meeting, dubbed the Competitiveness Council, there was "a real sense of the EU wanting to move on", said Fabian Zuleeg, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels think tank the European Policy Centre.

"The Constitution debate took up valuable time. It also made the politicians hesitant when tackling long-term questions like how to improve the E.U.'s ability to innovate and compete globally. It's possible to plan ahead now that there is no institutional problem sitting in the way," he said.

The most striking breakthrough concerned Galileo. A question mark has hung over the planned satellite navigation system for more than a year, after the consortium of private companies chosen to build and launch the 30 satellites pulled out, taking their 2.4 billion Euro share of the 3.4 billion Euro budget with them.

The European Commission proposed making Galileo fully publicly funded, just as GPS is in the US, but as always when billions of euros are concerned, the member states couldn't agree how to finance it; some started to question whether the system is even necessary.

After a 12-hour debate chaired by Portugal, which holds the EU's six month rotating presidency, ministers agreed to redeploy unspent money, instead of expanding the budget.

"We have an agreement. All the money was taken out of unspent funds, mostly for agriculture," a spokesman for the Portuguese presidency said.

The European Commission said it expects the agreement to become final in a vote to be taken this week during a meeting of transport ministers.

Progress on patents was less dazzling but could be of greater consequence in the long term. Hailing a breakthrough, Joao Tiago Silveira, Portugal's justice minister, said work would begin in earnest to create a unified patent litigation system and, separately, a single European patent, known as the Community Patent. He said he was "optimistic" these would lead to "specific results" by the end of the French presidency of the EU in the second half of next year.

As if that weren't enough, Portugal also pushed through approval of a new kind of public/private research partnership that will see nearly 10 billion Euro plowed into programs dubbed joint technology initiatives.

Janez Potocnik, the Commissioner for science and research, welcomed the ministers' support for the research. He said the public/private partnerships wouldn't suffer the fate of Galileo, because unlike with the satellite project, private research in the areas selected is already ongoing.

"It's a bottom-up, business initiative which we've topped with public money,'' he said at a press conference last week. "Private investment was there well before public investment. I do not see any possibility of failure.''

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