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EU research chief nominee wants ‘stronger ties with like-minded countries’

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JANUARY 31: Charles Michel (L), President of the European Council, David Sassoli (C), President of the European Parliament, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, cast shadows as they speak to the media on the day the United Kingdom will depart from the European Union on January 31, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. The departure will officially take place at midnight CET tonight, at which time a transition period will begin and a new generation of trade talks will launch. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The EU should work with its friends on research and innovation to win the geopolitical race to control new technologies, the European Union’s aspiring innovation chief Iliana Ivanova has said.

Ivanova is scheduled to address a select group of European Parliament members on Tuesday. The grilling will determine if lawmakers accept her nomination by the Bulgarian government and see her take over from compatriot Mariya Gabriel, who left the EU’s executive branch in May to become national foreign minister.

“I will focus my efforts to put the EU at the forefront of the new technological race and increase its competitiveness in the face of increased economic competition,” Ivanova said in written replies to lawmakers’ questions ahead of the hearing. “Creating stronger ties with like-minded countries is essential in this challenging geopolitical context” and will “reinforce” the bloc’s economic and technological security, she added.

The European Commission has hinted at using its research budgets to support its geopolitical agenda. The bloc already restricts certain funding for strategic and security-related projects and announced in June it plans to cut Chinese telecoms vendors Huawei and ZTE from research programs entirely — moves reflecting an increasing unease across the Western world to share research and technology with China.

Europe is also aligning its trade and technology policies with the United States within international forums like the two-year-old EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC).

If confirmed, Ivanova will oversee the bloc’s flagship research and innovation program Horizon Europe, which has a blockbuster budget of €95 billion and funds projects that help European companies compete globally and help fight climate change.

She argued the EU should use the power of the world’s “largest public funding program for research and innovation” by making sure that partners associate themselves with the program, adding that she wants to find the “right balance” between openness to international cooperation and safeguarding the EU’s strategic interests.

The bloc is currently negotiating with the United Kingdom and Switzerland over deals that would grant access to its research funds.

The Bulgarian nominee, a former member of the European Parliament herself, told lawmakers in her written answers that she “hope[s] that an agreement will soon be reached” with the U.K. and that negotiations with Switzerland “will also be a priority” in her new role. The EU has an interest in bringing on board non-EU countries since such associated members of the program also contribute financially, Ivanova wrote.

Horizon Europe has struggled to fund all proposals that pass its quality checks in past years, with the Commission estimating it faced a €34 billion gap to fund all worthy proposals in 2021-2022. European Parliament members called the program “significantly underfunded,” ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.

Ivanova said “the program alone, even being the largest public funding program for research and innovation in the world, cannot bridge the funding gap that we observe for many years now.”