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Framework Programmes have shown the vanity of borders – Étienne Davignon

Etienne Davignon, European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy 1981-1985 and Vice-President of the Commission, played a key role in setting up the Framework Programmes.
Etienne Davignon, European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy 1981-1985 and Vice-President of the Commission, played a key role in setting up the Framework Programmes.

The Framework Programmes have given Europe a leading role in science, showing that more things can be achieved by countries working together than alone, according to Étienne Davignon, European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy 1981-1985 and a former vice-president of the Commission, who introduced the First Framework Programme in 1984.

When you look back over the last three decades, what were the crucial turning points in the development of the Framework Programmes?

‘The crucial points came in the early years. The first is the acceptance by the scientific community of the utility of a European programme, and I think this is important because if you don’t have the support of those who are active, then you don’t have the legitimacy of your ambition. The second is overcoming the reluctance of Member States to understand why European programmes are useful for them.’

Was there a pivotal moment when Member States conceded that European research had an important role to play?

‘The pivotal moment was when ESPRIT (European Strategic Program on Research in Information Technology) was born, because this was an additional budget for an additional project. It was at the end of the time when I was a commissioner. We had a council of research ministers in October and, interestingly, the scientific advisor to Mrs Thatcher (the British Prime Minister at the time) had convinced her that this was a good programme, and the French then came and said, “we are all in favour, but instead of (us agreeing that the EU should give) the EUR 1 billion or the EUR 900 million which were requested, we will only (agree to) give EUR 600 million”.

‘Luckily the pessimists were proved wrong, and what I would like to see is that the pessimists are proved wrong once again.’

Etienne Davignon, Vice-President of the European Commission 1977 - 1985

‘I surprised the council at that time by saying “I have listened to what has just been said, I withdraw the programme”. There was protest to the President of the Commission saying that I had taken a decision which had not been discussed by the Commission itself, that I didn’t have the authority to do this. The President said that I had the authority, and in December (after another discussion) we approved the programme at the initial level. So it means that from time to time you can fight for what you believe in.’

What did industry-focused programmes such as ESPRIT, and BRITE-EURAM achieve?

‘You have created a system by which industry, universities, and research centres are involved in a number of cooperative projects. The number of states and universities participating has created the network effect which is obvious in science today.’

When you look at Europe today, what part of it has been shaped by the Framework Programmes?

‘They (the Framework Programmes) are still a small percentage of the totality of research funding which is being spent, so you can’t say that they have been a fundamental shaping factor. But, on the other side, they have clearly demonstrated the vanity of national borders and, in that sense, they have not shaped butsimply confirmed that you can do things better together than alone, and I think it was an important statement to re-make. It is also an element which gives credibility to the fact that scientifically Europe is strong. With globalisation there is a lot of feeling that Europe is on the losing side. The Framework Programmes have shown that a lot of important things can be done.’

What is the biggest lesson that you could draw from looking back over the last 30 years?

‘That a lot of things we did were considered at the start as hopeless. Luckily the pessimists were proved wrong, and what I would like to see is that the pessimists are proved wrong once again.’