Tuesday, February 22, 2011
HOW CAN WALES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EUROPE
As the Welsh Assembly Government’s own data suggested, the £1.9 billion funding still has a long way to go to make a real step change to the economy of Wales, especially within our poorer communities.
However, whilst much of the policy focus in Wales on European grants has been on Convergence funding, there has been little focus on the multi-billion pound programmes run centrally by the European Commission.
That is why the recent inquiry by the National Assembly for Wales’ European and External Affairs Committee into Welsh participation in European Union programmes is to be welcomed. Focusing on the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), the Lifelong Learning Programmes and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme, the committee examined how Wales was utilising the 60 billion euro budget available for these three key initiatives between 2007 and 2013.
As someone who has previously been involved in managing projects funded by these programmes, this report is long overdue. Having worked in Ireland in the 1990s, I saw, at first hand, how Irish business and academia took seriously the opportunities presented by these initiatives, especially in boosting their competiveness through research and innovation.
So what has been the performance of Wales within these programmes? Are we really taking advantage of the funding that could be made available to help the economy?
Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that whilst has received 39 million euros under the FP7 programme, this amounts to only 2.1 per cent of the total funding received by organizations in the UK.
If Wales had received the amount of funding that it should get as proportion of it population, then another 50 million euros would have been allocated to research projects within Wales.
One could argue that Wales may be handicapped by being a small region and that it could not compete with the more prosperous parts of Europe where there is a higher concentration of research active organizations able and willing to take advantage of such funding.
Yet, research into the previous round of the Framework programme showed that whilst the amount of EU funding per head of population received by Wales was 16 euros, in Catalonia it was 185 euros and for Brittany, it was 218 euros. Flanders, with a population just over twice that of Wales, received three and half times more funding through the 6th Framework programme, an amount equivalent to 352 million euros.
Why is this happening? Why is Wales not taking advantage of this multi billion pound funding opportunity?
One of the key issues recognised by the Committee is that collaboration between industry and academia appears relatively weakly developed in Wales. In particular, the so called “triple helix” model – where government, academia and industry work closely together - and which is strongly advocated within programmes, is found to be a very rare occurrence within the Welsh economy.
Another suggestion as to why Wales is punching well below its weight could be, paradoxically, the access to European Structural Funding and the report points out that there has been a tendency to concentrate on Structural Funds as opposed to transnational EU programmes. For example, Swansea University has only received £4.1 million from FP7 as compared to £55 million from Convergence funding.
So what were the key recommendations from the committee as to how Wales can help can take full advantage of this funding to help develop the economy?
The most relevant, and obvious, suggestion is that there needs to be a far more strategic approach to how Wales can access all programmes funded by the European Union. Clearly, the Welsh Assembly Government can influence this process but so can the six new industry panels formed under the Economic Renewal programme, all of which have the clout to focus on the multi-billion pound programmes that directly affect their sectors.
In addition, the committee suggested that there seemed to very little information on EU funding opportunities available to potential bidders and, more relevantly, very little support to help applicants through the labyrinth of documents that make up the administration of many EU programmes.
Certainly, I believe that given the European programme expertise that already exists within many higher education institutions in Wales, this role could be taken on by the universities that could be far more proactive in helping local businesses to access these programmes.
However, the most important issue for anyone involved in any EU programmes is the issue of partnership, as most programmes have to have participants from at least two EU countries.
This is where the Welsh Assembly Government could also play a role, by identifying similar regions across Europe and developing formal partnerships that, together, could bid for the billions of pounds of European support.
After all, if Wales doesn’t get it act together to bid for this multi billion pound pot of money in the future, other parts of Europe certainly will.