Thursday, January 7, 2021

Stifling creativity, chilling innovation, and now even killing people: the EU needs to rethink its approach to industrial policy

With VaxGate, Brussels--as a metonym for the EU--is going through its worst credibility crisis ever, while Brexit is already a success story in one particularly important regard: the UK is outvaccinating the Continent. It's also a fact that British elite universities outperform their continental counterparts in global rankings.

Even EU-friendly mainstream media such as German newsweekly Der Spiegel now feel forced to talk about some of what's going wrong. Spiegel author Michael Sauga today criticizes the Merkel-Macron doctrine (to me, they're simply the Axis of Evil, or even the Axis of Death) that COVID vaccines be both developed and manufactured in Europe in order to become more independent from other economic regions. Just yesterday, the European Commission granted provisional approval to Moderna's mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine, further to a recommendation by the European Medicines Agency. While Moderna's vaccine is already in use in the U.S., the EU clearly treated it as its lowest priority among the top six candidates, simply because it's an American company that didn't have much, if any, European manufacturing capacity at the time.

If I had to choose which of the vaccines to take today, and if I even had the choice, I'd presently--subject to what we'll learn throughout the year--prefer Moderna's vaccine. The only known issue with all those mRNA-based vaccines is that the risk of an anaphylactic shock is about 20-25 times higher than with conventional vaccines. I don't have any known allergies (there a few measurable ones, but so minor I don't even notice anything, such as when I eat hazelnuts), so I'm particularly unlikely to be that one person among 40,000 or 50,000 who would suffer an anaphylaxis. I'd just want to be under observation for 30+ minutes after the jab. What makes me feel better about Moderna's vaccine than Pfizer/BioNTech's is that it may be slightly more advanced. BioNTech hopes to make further progress this year to bring down the cooling requirements. With Moderna already being where BioNTech is trying to get, it's possible that Moderna's product is more mature. Both are 95% effective, though it remains to be seen how well they work against new mutations (for B.1.1.7, a gradual reduction of efficacy is possible, but for the South African mutation, it's not even clear whether the existing vaccines will work at all).

So the EU initially treated as a low priority the COVID-19 vaccine that may actually turn out to be the best of all, and has already turned out to be one of the first two to become available. For industrial policy reasons. One has to be highly unethical or simply deranged to let so many people die for some ill-conceived industrial policy.

When Merkel and Macron were just the Axis of Evil--not yet the Axis of Death--, they already did a horse trade that was unbelievably stupid: Article 13, which then became, after a renumbering, Article 17 of the EU Copyright Directive. It's still high on the EU Commission's priority list. The Merkel government primarily wanted something else: the news snippets tax. That's because German media giants had lobbied for it very hard. For France, however, upload filters were going to be the grand prize. So Merkel and Macron agreed to do both.

There's something I really, really wish to clarify here: I don't disagree that some smart regulatory approaches are needed to certain platforms that have become extremely powerful. In fact, some of what they're discussing in the EU with respect to "gatekeepers" makes a whole lot of sense, and a majority of the House of Representatives raised similar concerns. The question is, however, what will ensure a level playing field and what is just going to be negative on the bottom line, like cutting one's nose to spite one's face.

Upload filters stifle creativity. The right holders who benefit from it are collecting societies, and they are problematic in various ways. Ultimately, just like some overreaching data privacy rules, such a framework may even raise barriers to entry.

Some simple-minded, totally incompetent people came up with the idea at some point that copyright could have a redistributive effect favoring France and Europe as a whole. Of course, the collective European market share of copyrightable works found on Internet platforms used in Europe is far higher than the market share of European platform makers. So if you give copyright holders more leverage over the platforms, it means that far more money will flow in a certain direction than in the opposite one. But those Merkel-supported French idiocies, such as upload filters, are not well-thought-out. From a holistic perspective, they do more harm than good. They just please some lobbyists, and some fools.

It gets slightly more complex, but no less clear, in the automotive standard-essential patent (SEP) licensing context. In that case, there isn't even a clear French beneficiary such as copyright holders or Sanofi (which is going to get a lot of money for a vaccine research project that is otherwise a huge disappointment and failure so far). There actually would be French beneficiaries--car makers like Renault and automotive suppliers like Valeo--from the better policy alternative. But French EU fake news commissioner Thierry Breton is beholden to Nokia and Ericsson, probably just because he has a long history with them due to his own industry background (France Telecom).

Not only Europe's automotive industry but even more so the wider IoT industry would have benefited from allowing the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) to investigate Nokia's refusal to grant exhaustive component-level licenses to "all comers" from all tiers of the automotive supply chain.

The concept of "digital sovereignty" (which in this case means having European telecommunications infrastructure providers) could and should be separated from competition enforcement. Give them subsidies, or allow their national governments to do so. But don't let other industries--automotive and, more generally, IoT--suffer, especially when the vast majority of 5G patents aren't even owned by EU-based patent holders.

Ideally, industrial policy shouldn't influence antitrust enforcement. It's a reality that it often does, but if that's what you want to be the case, you at least have to think things through holistically. That doesn't appear to be a strength of people like Macron and Breton, and Merkel just follows them because she lives in an ivory tower and is detached from reality. A few years ago, she referred to the Internet as "Neuland" ("new land" or "unchartered territory"), which tells you all you need to know in this respect.

IP policy is industrial policy, but upload filters are insane. Competition enforcement should be principled, yet is often driven by industrial policy considerations, and whether you look at the merits of those complaints against Nokia or take an industrial policy perspective, the result would be the same: go after Nokia (and, by extension, Ericsson). And when it's about life or death, such as in the SARS-CoV-2 context, industrial policy almost literally kills people.

If the EU takes a smart and holistic approach to its Digital Markets Act/Digital Services Act initiative, and to competition enforcement in the app distribution context, its efforts may actually have a positive impact. But where things stand today, EU industrial policy, especially if devised by French politicians, all too often results in extremely stupid decisions. The EU can rely on many journalists failing to figure it out, or being ideologically biased and therefore unwilling to speak truth to power. In European media you find all those excuses that no one could foresee which vaccine research projects were going to be most successful when one would just have to compare the timeline of the EU's decisions (all of which are public) with the official progress reports of those projects (all of which are public, too, such as on the New York Times Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker). But ignorance, ideology, and spin-doctoring only do so much. Throughout this year, the EU's most miserable failure will become clearer and clearer. The decision makers in Brussels and their advisers will have realized by now that they've failed European citizens. Will they draw the necessary conclusions from it and do better in other areas?

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: