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Business meets - Europe expects

The discussion over whether innovation can benefit Europe is over - the question now is how, and what needs to be done. This is where the forthcoming European Business summit, to be held in Brussels on 9 to 11 June, enters centre stage. Already blessed with top names on the b...

The discussion over whether innovation can benefit Europe is over - the question now is how, and what needs to be done. This is where the forthcoming European Business summit, to be held in Brussels on 9 to 11 June, enters centre stage. Already blessed with top names on the bill, the conference is expected to host 1,500 decision makers from the worlds of business and politics to look at how a consensual approach to innovation can take Europe forward. In particular, it hopes to address ways in which the two spheres of business and politics can work better together. As innovation grows to impact on more than just how we do business, there is a need for governments and politicians to be involved in guiding this process. This means taking the opportunity to stand back and assess what are the best opportunities and which are the greatest challenges provided by the new business environment. In line with this, one of the passages used to illustrate the purpose of the conference is taken from the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, discussing the impact on Europe's future development. 'To make any real impact on the unemployment problem and the future of forthcoming generations, macroeconomic policies must be backed up by an equally far-sighted range of microeconomic measures,' he said. 'This range of measures must above all include an extra special effort in the area of training of all types of human resources, of stepping up investment in research and development and the development of an information society.' The conference will be organised into two plenary sessions and 12 workshops. The speakers list has some notable names from business, such as Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's president and CEO and Georges Jacobs, President of UNICE, the international employers' union. The event has clearly been assigned a high priority by the European Commission. Erkki Liikanen, Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society, will be joined by at least seven other Commissioners as well as by the Commission's President, Mr Romano Prodi - and all of this over the course of a weekend conference. The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt will also be attending. In the lead up to the conference, UNICE released a report which indicated that Europe is suffering an 'innovation deficit' - precisely the kind of issue which the conference plans to address. Europe compares poorly with the USA and Japan in creation of new products and getting them into the market quickly. This is one of the reasons why UNICE, which represents over 16 million European enterprises, is taking such an interest in what happens at the conference (the Federation of Belgian Industries is organising it under UNICE's auspices). The major interest is focused on which direction Europe will take following the Lisbon summit. To have this new conference, which will be attended by some of the top representatives in their fields, all together in one place so shortly after the original Lisbon summit, reflects the awareness that innovation is a fast moving environment. Whereas Lisbon provided the impetus and, as many have pointed out, put innovation back on the agenda, it is now up to the European business summit to make good some of those intentions. Indeed, the warning coming from those in positions of responsibility are that the European Business Summit represents not so much an opportunity to take Europe's innovation forward, but an obligation to do so. UNICE's President Georges Jacobs, has already said the EU could fall further behind its already lagging position as outlined in the UNICE report if both governments and companies do not boost innovation in Europe quickly. This would involve providing more start-up assistance, reducing the red tape that entrepreneurs need to wade through and helping to secure a regulatory environment that is easier to work in. Financing also remains an area which requires an overhaul, as access to appropriate finance at the appropriate stage of an innovative project can be difficult to secure. Other factors which will need to be discussed at the conference include intellectual property rights (and how to harmonise Europe's stance on this), providing adequate benchmarking and reducing development costs. And it is progress on these issues that will eventually make the real headlines.