EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel: The future of Europe is everyone's future

Read our interview with EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel on the challenges of the future

  • February 10, 2020 11:30
  • Author Anton Stoyanov
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eCommerce Week of UNCTAD by UNCTAD on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mrs. Gabriel, first of all, congratulations on your new appointment and best of luck at your new job. Your portfolio as Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth has undergone several changes and has increased significantly since initially proposed. What are your expectations for your new position and how do you plan to combine so many different sectors?

Taking on this great and important line is a real privilege and an honor for me. It provides tremendous opportunities for our SMEs, start-ups and start-ups to develop and create innovation. It is also an opportunity for our young people to acquire the necessary skills for an increasingly digital labor market.

Education, research and innovation are inextricably linked. We often talk about the knowledge triangle, but our big goal is to make it a square of knowledge, incorporating the benefits to society. Achieving this goal requires an ambitious political agreement on the next multiannual financial framework, especially with regard to programs that reflect our priorities for the future: Horizon Europe, Erasmus + Creative Europe, European Solidarity Corps. The coming months will be crucial.

Over the next five years, we need to address several major challenges. We need to strengthen support for women, especially in the field of science. We must overcome the division between East and West in terms of excellence. We must use the full potential of education, research and culture to promote international cooperation, especially with our neighbours in the Western Balkans. We need to preserve our cultural heritage as a pillar in an increasingly unpredictable world. Sport is also very important as a means of promoting inclusion.

After a long struggle led by the European Parliament, Culture was included in the name of your portfolio - and of course, what is Europe without its cultural heritage? What are the main obstacles that you expect to face and what is your vision for European cultural development?

I am very pleased that Culture is now explicitly mentioned in the name of my portfolio, along with research and education, which have also been added to the name. Of course, whether explicitly stated or not, culture is part of it.

Culture and cultural heritage are the cornerstones of European integration and are essential resources for Europe. 2018 was the European Year of Cultural Heritage, and we know from research that most Europeans are proud of our common cultural heritage. They state that it is important for them to feel like they belong to Europe.

What would happen to our cities and communities without their museums, local traditions and holidays? What would Europe be like without cross-border mobility and the exchange of information on culture and arts?

That is why we must preserve our cultural heritage as a pillar in a world full of challenges. In this sense, the cultural dimension is crucial to addressing the challenges of education, innovation, social cohesion and climate change, as well as regional and urban growth, sustainable development. We need to work hard for the EU's political agenda for inclusion, sustainability and innovation, without forgetting the international context and the unique global partnerships that culture and cultural heritage help to forge.

We must also acknowledge the problems in culture itself. In the Commission's proposal for the next long-term budget, the Creative Europe program will have nearly 1.9 billion euros of funding. However, support for culture and cultural heritage must remain broader. In this context, the Horizon Europe program and the EU Structural Funds will play a particularly important role.

As Commissioner responsible for Education and Youth, one of the most important programs under your jurisdiction is Erasmus +. What are your plans for its development in the next 5 years?

Erasmus is a European success story that has proven its added value for more than three decades. The program is an effective way of addressing many of the societal challenges facing Europe. In the future, we need a bigger, stronger, better Erasmus + program. We are currently negotiating with the European Parliament and the Member States. I expect the next seven-year budget for the period 2021-2027 to double and why not triple.

We need more funding to enable a wider range of people and organizations to participate in the program. More people with fewer opportunities, including disadvantaged or disabled persons, should be able to take advantage of the prospects offered. We want funding to be more accessible to smaller local organizations, such as youth groups and sports clubs.

A stronger Erasmus + program is also at the root of our efforts to make the European Education Area a reality by 2025. We want to remove all obstacles for high-quality education and facilitate the movement of students between EU education systems.

Innovation and technological progress are essential for Europe. During your term, you will work with other Commissioners on a range of science-related issues and how they impact citizens’ everyday lives. What results do you expect from your cooperation with your fellow commissioners?

Research and innovation are key to how we live, how we work and how we protect the climate. That is why we are developing our research and innovation policies in close cooperation with other European Commission directorates, and not only. We have started strategic planning for the new Horizon Europe research and innovation program, with the participation of other institutions, EU countries, businesses, research organizations, universities and citizens. We have created the programme in such a way that it ensures we address the issues that are most important to society and has the greatest impact.

In terms of results, research and innovation will definitely play a central role in delivering results on the European Green Deal. More than 35% of the proposed € 100 billion of funding under the new Horizon Europe program, as well as the new € 1 billion of funding under the current Horizon 2020 program, will contribute to the climate and European Green Pact objectives.

Another important issue for me is a greater representation of women in all areas. Addressing gender inequalities in science is one of my priorities for the development of the European Research Area. I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to bring about this positive change. The first date to mark the calendar is February 11 - International Women's Day in Science. On this day, we will be launching this year's edition of the Women's Innovator Award, which honours women entrepreneurs who have presented remarkable innovations on the market. I will be glad to have many successful female candidates from Bulgaria as well.

You’re building on top of your rich experience as Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. What are you bringing from your previous portfolio to your current job?

One of the main priorities of the current European Commission is to prepare Europe for the digital age. This means that we must be at the forefront of technological breakthroughs, encourage our innovators to bring their ideas to the market and ensure that society as a whole benefits from them. These goals are closely related to my previous work as Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

A good example is blockchain. In 2018, I launched the Observatory and the EU Blockchain Forum. We have also proposed a Digital Europe program with a budget of EUR 9.2 billion, in which the development of blockchain applications will play an important role. On the other hand, the European Innovation Council (ESI) will be the main tool in helping to fund innovative ideas and bring them to the market.

But, of course, digitalisation is also heavily present in the education, culture and youth dimensions of my portfolio. I will continue to work to ensure that more Europeans have access to digital skills training, mainly through the Digital Education Action Plan. I was very committed to adopting it in January 2018 and am now responsible for updating it to promote digital skills for all.

This is very important for our societies to be better prepared for the future - 43% of Europeans currently lack basic digital skills.

We need to make better use of technology to make our education systems more innovative, relevant and prepared for the digital age. For example, we need citizens to understand how artificial intelligence and algorithms affect our daily lives, as well as the many ethical and social implications of these technologies. We need to retain our talents in Europe so that we can fully embrace these new technologies and our small and medium-sized enterprises benefit from the digital and environmental transformation of our economy.

Europe's digitalization and digitization are already an established fact - they are part of the lives of not only citizens, but of entire municipalities and cities, even countries. What are your priorities for the EU's digital development during your new term?

My leading priority is to enable the best European researchers, innovators and businesses to drive the transition to digital in a way that is revolutionary, competitive and to the benefit of society. This includes extending the development and added value of digital solutions to all EU countries. I would like to set an example with Bulgaria.

Through this Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, the Bulgarian international freight company Discordia received a loan of € 2.4 million for digitization, development of an innovative business model and creation of 160 new jobs in just a single year.

With Horizon Europe, for the period 2021-2027, we are even more ambitious. The European Innovation Council pilot project is already supporting the funding of innovative start-ups and SMEs that have failed in the past to find funding for their revolutionary and innovative ideas. The Transmetrix-based company in Sofia is one of the first 75 start-ups and SMEs to receive funding through the new ESI Accelerator tool.

What are your goals for the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe? As Commissioner responsible for Europe’s youth, do you intend to work on involving young people in the discussions?

Of course. The Conference on the Future of Europe plays an important role in our priority of giving new impetus to European democracy. Citizens, especially young people, are aware of the challenges we face and wish to participate more and more actively. With this in mind, we launched the conference on the future of Europe as a forum for citizens, policy-makers and other stakeholders to hold an open, inclusive and transparent debate about our future.

Through the Erasmus + programs, the European Solidarity Corps and DiscoverEU, we can mobilize young people. It is very important that we’re also able to reach disadvantaged people or those who live in remote areas. I am convinced that young Europeans will contribute. This is their future.

In terms of research and innovation, we want to discuss how we can best deal with people's fundamental concerns. That is why we have added a whole new element to the future Horizon Europe program - the so-called. missions. Through them, we want to respond to climate change, be more effective in fighting cancer, take care of soil and food, and the condition of the oceans. My idea is to hold discussions in the Member States and hear people's opinions. I would also like to see Bulgarian citizens active, exchanging views and contributing to the pan-European debate. The future of Europe is actually everyone’s future.

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