ECSEL JU – Securing Europe’s future through impactful RD&I in electronics 

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This article has been published by The European Files on October 21, 2020. 

ECSEL JU (www.ecsel.eu) operates a unique model for financing collaborative RD&I in Europe, which brings  together the best of Industry, 29 Participating States (EU and non-EU Member States), and the European Commission around a commonly agreed strategy for its sector – Electronic Components and Systems (ECS). These are the most fundamental capabilities upon which virtually all other domains rely. Access to these technologies must be guaranteed, to secure any of Europe’s societal goals. As emphasised by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Com- mission, in her 2020 “State of the EU” speech, ECS underpin all digital technologies, and impact everything from healthcare to clean energy and transport, food safety, broadband communications and competitive industries offering meaningful jobs for all.

The importance of assured access to ECS is therefore paramount for Europe. ECSEL JU raised this topic at its Symposium of 2019 in Bucharest, which was further iterated on by Commissioner Thierry Breton in the Symposium of 2020 (https://www.ecsel.eu/ecsel- ju-symposium-2020-brussels) and many other public statements.

Quick and direct access to key products and technologies – although the diversity of concerns it brings, in a fully interconnected world – is a topic of very high political visibility, now even more emphasised by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ECSEL JU unique funding model, based on open collaboration, has demonstrated its capability to achieve concrete results, while coping with concerns of stakeholders and respecting their diversity of standpoints. This has already resulted in multi-billion investments in new manufacturing capacity in Europe (see the reports on ECSEL JU impacts at https://www.ecsel.eu/publications).

Bert De Colvenaer, the Executive Director of ECSEL JU, has stressed several times the need to develop an ambitious European industrial plan for ECS, where RD&I is key for assuring the technology autonomy of the EU. We live in a world-wide market evolving at the highest speed: new needs, new expectations, new priorities are in front of us. So, we are asked to provide answers to match that speed. Innovative working models based on collaboration and knowledge sharing are needed, and ECSEL JU offers a clear example of ‘‘thinking together, working together and investing together’’, how a joint program may bring excellent results in a very competitive market like ECS.

Digital technologies are key for our society and for the EU’s economic recovery and, also, stability. The goal should be to make Europe the most attractive place to develop and deploy new ECS technologies. Stable legal frameworks, industrial strategies, and political willingness as well as favourable economic conditions are crucial to make companies stay and invest in the EU.

To quote the EU Council President Charles Michel: ‘‘Production of [computer] processors, vital medicines, and other essential products ought to be brought back to Europe from overseas. The strategic independence of Europe is our new common project for this.

The ECS sector is growing at the highest speed, driven inter alia by electrification and automation of vehicles, digitalisation of industry and agriculture, of electrical power grids (renewables) and even cities. Guided by well-established European values, they form the hub for solutions to societal challenges, including the “European Green Deal”. Many of Europe’s strengths are based on the deep technical knowledge and leading market position in this sector.

These growing markets provide clear opportunities for ECS, but the speed of innovation and its uptake by markets are becoming increasingly important.

Value chains are becoming complex networks: shorter and more interconnected. Cyber- security has become a challenging, high-profile issue. Systems companies need a stable supply of affordable, energy efficient and trusted components well-matched to the needs of their customers. While the steady miniaturisation of semiconductor transistor technology will remain relevant, new paradigms beyond scaling are emerging, and newly emerging computing architectures beyond the traditional ones will need to be brought to market quickly. There is not time to waste!

In the field of ECS, the ECSEL JU program already serves as an essential catalyst for additional investments: EC contribution complemented by national and even regional financial support. With its tripartite model (EU/Participating States/industry), the ECSEL JU facilitates the creation of an ecosystem across Europe, unique and unmatched by any other program in this sector. Future policies can (and should) build further on this model’s successes.

The need for a European partnership on Key Digital Technologies appears now strategic to re-build and strengthen the European Digital Competences. The EU has the political power and the technology competence to modify the current dynamics and put in place an industrial policy, in particular in ECS and digital domain, favourable for long- term investments, and so to create stability and technology autonomy, facing up to the massive investments heavily supported by governments in other geographies.

Observing the concerns of the stakeholders in ECSEL JU, we see the need to find the proper compromise between ‘‘open market’’ and the need to secure ‘‘technology independence (i.e. securing the supply/value chains)’’. It is crucial to establish strategic global alliances for economic and technological issue as well as to identify the today’s threats to preserve our own European values. There are sectors, as ECS, where a risk sharing approach is a must, given the magnitude of the effort required.

In that light, we certainly see that public- private investments are the way forward. Only in a context of open collaboration can synergies and alignment of policies and strategies be reached. It is crucial to maintain EU strengths (including manufacturing capabilities) and secure fast access to reliable solutions, wherever possible “made in Europe”. We see for the first time, major investments in chip production capacity in Europe thanks to projects funded through ECSEL JU.

However, full access to the best knowledge and networks, based upon reciprocity, is the key for securing autonomy without entering in a protectionism mode.

Lately, the concept of “tech-sovereignty/ autonomy” has become a viral phenomenon, due to the COVID-19 crisis. The idea of reducing Europe’s dependence on US or Chinese-origin technologies is more and more popular.

“If we don’t build our own champions in all areas — digital, artificial intelligence,” French President Emmanuel Macron recently said, “our choices will be dictated by others”.

In this respect, it is also important to mention a very recent statement from the European Court of Auditors. According to a new ECA’s analysis published on 10 September 2020 https://www.eca.europa.eu/en/Pages/ DocItem.aspx?did=54733, the EU should respond more decisively to the industrial and investment strategies from other geographies. In such analysis, the ECA examines the multiple risks, mainly of an economic and political nature, that the strategy of China’s state-led investment brings to the EU as well as the opportunities it offers.

Competing on an equal footing for EU companies operating abroad is essential. Non-discriminatory treatment, transparency, predictability, and legal certainty of the investment environment as well as adequate commitments regarding labour and the environment are equally extremely important.

If the discussion on the need to achieve “tech-sovereignty” is so strategic, then tools to help building strong networks of com- panies and researchers to lead in break- through technologies are crucial.

One way to achieve this goal is strengthening European PPPs where public and private members (including private investors) can work together around an agreed program to share risks. But ECSEL JU is all that! It has reached great achievements and should be continued with an even more ambitious budget, to reach those major investments needed to keep European sup- pliers ahead of the world in safety-critical electronics, and put European companies ahead in supplying advanced chips used in many domains, such as the mobile telecom industry, including multi-band, 5G radio and beyond.

Ultimately, the question leads to the level of EU and national politics and industrial policy, in coordination between individual planning and dynamics and objectives of a general nature. ECSEL JU has been built to serve the general interest of the European citizens. We look forward to securing an even stronger contribution under the new KDT Joint Undertaking.

 

By Luciano Gaudio, Deputy Head of Unit for Communications ECSEL Joint Undertaking