‘By means of industry … you will rise higher and higher’

08 Mar 2017 | Ian Thomas

(Robert Schumann)

At the start of February, I received an invitation from a former colleague, now at the European Commission, inviting me to moderate a panel session at the EU Industry Day. My first reaction was to be flattered at being asked to participate in what was no doubt a long-established fixture on the Brussels calendar. My second, upon realising it was taking place only 4 weeks later, was that I must have been a late replacement for someone who had pulled out. In the event, neither assumption proved correct.

This was, in fact, the first ever EU Industry Day. Surprising, given that the European Union was founded on coal and steel and that manufacturing currently accounts for 24% of GDP and 50 million jobs within the bloc. Whereas it had not previously been felt necessary to look at EU industry as a whole or to consider an overarching industrial policy or strategy, the event had suddenly moved up the priority list from later in the year. Nonetheless, even with only 4 weeks’ notice, the European Commission had no trouble in attracting over 1,000 attendees and a series of high-level speakers.

So why the new focus on EU industry and the urgency in getting together to discuss it? The answer lies in the confluence of China, Trump, Brexit and technological disruption.

It seems that the US (under its new president) and the UK (in preparation for Brexit) have a new-found belief in the merits of government-led industrial strategy. Of course, China has had such a policy for decades and has recently announced plans to create national champions in 10 industrial sectors of the future.

It can be debated whether ‘Made in the US’ is consistent with the realities of complex global supply chains or whether the UK government is capable of devising a coherent strategy after 30 years of mostly leaving it to the free market. However, what is certain is that political focus in the US and UK has turned to how to support domestic industry in an age of globalisation.

Driving this is the impact of new technology. One aspect is the disruption created by new business models in sectors that have experienced little change for years (the Uber effect) as well as automation of work hitherto undertaken by human beings (e.g. robotics and AI). The other is how to capture the benefits of such technology in a way that produces economic growth and new jobs.

EU Industry Day was a small but highly visible response on the part of the European Commission to these challenges, a way of demonstrating that the EU is aware of the issues and is actively seeking to address them. Of course, what was of most interest to me was the discussion around technology and, as moderator of that panel discussion, I had the opportunity to listen to the thoughts of some well-informed participants from the private, public and non-governmental sectors.

Anyone interested in seeing and hearing the proceedings can do so here: http://bit.ly/2mbbjsT. The Advanced Technologies panel discussion and questions can be found 2:31 hrs into the video. The wrap-up of the key points, including some Brexit humour (yes, even in Brussels!), is 8:32 hrs in.

Alternatively, stay tuned for a summary in part 2 of this blog…

Ian Thomas

Managing Director

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