Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Erkki Liikanen talks to CORDIS

Erkki Liikanen, the new Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner, is a happy man. Since he entered the Finnish Parliament at the age of 21, Liikanen has been nurturing a fascination for innovation and the enterprise society that he says has only just borne fruit. I am g...
Erkki Liikanen, the new Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner, is a happy man. Since he entered the Finnish Parliament at the age of 21, Liikanen has been nurturing a fascination for innovation and the enterprise society that he says has only just borne fruit. I am glad to work in an area that is not only interesting, but what I have always wanted to do,' he said.

For most of his career, Liikanen has been involved with budgetary and financial matters. He was the Finnish Minister for Finance from 1987 until his nomination to Brussels in 1990 as Ambassador and Head of the Finnish Mission to the EU. However during this time he was also a member of the Science and Technology Policy Council of Finland. Prior to this he showed his interest in innovative companies and new technologies through membership of the board of Televa Corporation, a state company which first created digital switchboard telephones. Later he chaired the board of the mining and technology company, Outokumpu Corporation, and became an auditor of the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development (Sitra). Finally, as European Commissioner responsible for budget, personnel and administration in the previous Commission he was also responsible for the in-house computer services.

'Much of my life has revolved around horizontal responsibilities like budgets and finance, but I have been following innovation and Information Society matters throughout my career, although never full time. Now I am full time and I am fascinated. It's a very interesting area, with many challenges.'

Liikanen knows his new portfolio will not be easy. 'Of course there will be difficult tasks ahead,' he said. 'There is the reorganisation of the Directorate-General for starters, but there are also many opportunities. We have to rethink our priorities, focus on them and do it better.'

Liikanen's portfolio brings together industry, innovation and the Information Society, which he says creates a global approach. 'The need to promote innovation should permeate throughout enterprise policy and be a major factor to be taken into account whenever policy decisions are made. We need to encourage enterprises to rapidly exploit the opportunities arising in the Information Society, such as e-commerce, in order to boost competitiveness. This is especially the case for traditional industries, where the adjustment process is slower. Bringing these three areas together means that none will be operated in isolation: each area will support the others.'

He says Europe's real problem is that it has been weak in creating enterprise. One way of getting around this is to encourage cooperation between small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and big companies. Industrial policy will therefore be integrated to benefit both large and small companies. 'People must have the patience to listen to each other,' he said. 'We need to break down the communication barriers between large and small enterprises. Large companies can do much to support small companies and vice versa. Very often the innovations which the bigger companies are using have been formed in small enterprises around them. Whenever you talk nowadays to big enterprises they inform us that this entrepreneurial spirit is important because when you are working in the hard, fast-growing sectors you need many ideas which don't come from your own organisation.'

Of course, some policies must be aimed specifically at SMEs, which the Enterprise Commissioner believes are the engines of job creation. He said: 'What we need to do is simplify the legal frameworks. Creating enterprises is too expensive and it takes too much time. We must also concentrate on better training because often the people who have the ideas are not the ones who know how to make a business. We also need to find a solution for financing and here we should examine risk capital possibilities. And finally we must simplify our own procedures internally so they are able to play a greater role in our programmes.'

In the Information Society the crucial issue is one of establishing trust - something Commission President Romano Prodi has taken as a priority for the end of the year. Liikanen says: 'We need a proper legal framework. We need trust and we need security so that people are sure that the Internet and other communication technologies are a secure environment for doing business. People need greater knowledge and awareness of these issues. These will be our priorities for the months to come.'

Personally Liikanen said his main objective 'is to do everything to make Europe a genuine world class Information Society which our citizens can have confidence in.' He went on: 'Ultimately this will create employment which is the most important issue. Together with the Member States we must try to reinforce the enterprise spirit in Europe so that we can create more new enterprises and create new facilities to grow.'

To be effective with limited resources, Liikanen concedes that the Commission's priorities must be tightly focussed. He says: 'If we have 18 areas where we are active, it dilutes every action. So we should do a kind of focussing operation - find five or six priorities and areas where we should invest. Then see which ones we should do on our own, and for which ones we should cooperate with the European Investment Fund or Investment Bank, or with the Member States and so forth. Then we find the right partnerships.' Liikanen also believes the Commission should be ready to withdraw from areas when they appear to be functioning well on their own. 'We must be happy about success, and if success means that we're not needed anymore then let's stick to it.'

The new Enterprise Commissioner has been visiting agencies and organisations that specifically encourage innovation, such as the European Venture Capital Association. He stressed the importance of the work carried out by the venture capital experts of the Commission and the actors in the private sector which work closely with industries, SMEs and business capitalists. 'Entrepreneurs are people who take big risks in life and we must give credit to this spirit somehow. I'm not saying everyone should be an entrepreneur, but we must encourage and help the people who have these kinds of qualities. We must connect the issue and the ideas. If we know the risk capital market we can advise them.'

Europe is the ideal place to develop such a system because there are so many ways of doing things, and Liikanen says: 'We can learn from each other.' Personally he brings the Finnish experience which he says is both good and bad. 'On the risk capital side we have good experiences. The negative side is that too few people in Finland want to be an entrepreneur. It's good to have a reference point, and if your reference includes a good side and a bad side I think that is a plus. We are trying to benchmark our polices and this experience will be very useful. We can learn so much from each other and for that the Commission is in a good position.'

There are several areas where Europe maintains a competitive advantage in comparison with the United States, notably education and telecommunications policy. Liikanen says we should build on these advantages, and use them as a lesson of what can be achieved. He said: 'In the field of mobile telecommunications Europe is really leading. It shows that we can seize the opportunity. It helped that we had a coherent internal market which we liberalised, and our research programmes had an important role to play when new standards were created. But we have to move fast with these things. My position is that we could take better advantage of our strengths if we had a better enterprise spirit so people can just run with ideas and move forward.'

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