The Brussels formula: coffee, croissants and dull speeches

The Economist magazine’s “Charlemagne” has an interesting article on the intellectual culture – or rather lack of it – in Brussels. It chimes with my experience of covering EU affairs as a science journalist.

“Nobody seems able to change the default formula for Brussels policy seminars: good coffee and croissants, dull speeches and a brief exchange of conventional wisdom. The painful comparison is with Washington, DC, where the best think-tanks refuse public money, compete to set the agenda with provocative ideas, and enjoy extraordinary access to administration and Congress alike.”

This is a serious problem, and in my view it threatens to derail the entire project. Where is the life, imagination, dynamism and willingness to take risks? The EU has the capacity to rival, if not overtake the USA in terms of economic activity, but it lags very far behind.

Comparing the two entities today in terms of scientific output, Europe should be doing far more than it is. In the field of nanotechnology, about which I am commissioned to write nine news stories and a feature every fortnight, I’m lucky if I can find two good European leads. Yet large amounts of public money are invested in this area of R&D. And this is just one example; the problem extends right across the board.

I would like to see the EU slacken the reins, show some vision, and evolve into a confederation of autonomous regions. A confederation in which the constituent regions are based on geographic and cultural realities, not the legacy of imperial power. But right now I’m not particularly optimistic.