SERN Policy Briefing: Workplace Innovation

SERN Policy Briefing: Workplace Innovation

Workplace Innovation: what will the next Commission bring?


Mariya Gabriel and Thierry Breton are two new Commission members. Their roles will impact Workplace Innovation importantly.

SERN Policy Briefing #2  ;  31/8/2020


On 1 December 2019 the EU’s new commission took office. Led by von der Leyen, the commission had been elected on the 27th November. It will have three executive Vice-Presidents. The first will be ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans. The Dutch will be responsible for the overlook of the EU’s green policy. Margrethe Vestager will be the second. The Danish politician will control digital affairs, in Europe. The third is Valdis Dombrovskis. The ex-PM has the mission of overseeing “An Economy that Works for People”.

Diverse backgrounds are the origin of the 27 commissioners. Of their mandate, two offices will be particularly important. The first regards the “European Green Deal”, and the second concerns the “Digital Age.” Regarding Workplace Innovation (WI), two will be crucial. The first is Mariya Gabriel- “Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth”. The second is Thierry Breton. He has been assigned with regulating the critical internal market. Below, we’ll try to analyse their impact on work innovations.

Before discussing expectations, their backgrounds must be reviewed. Different officials have distinct pasts, and varied experiences. This usually affects their future policies. Take, for example, an official’s ideological past. If it’s a liberal one, then he may support more financial deregulation. If it’s leftist, he may fight for cohesion.

Another impacting factor is a commissioner’s experience. For example, he may have held office in a European state. This has probably trained his decision-making. EU backgrounds are also critical, regarding tenures. Commission members can have such past, having worked in the European Civil Service. This may ease their future work, in the executive, very much. For example, they might have critical networks in the European bureaucracy. Also, they may know the latter’s complex workings.

The first commissioner whose background we’ll review is Mariya Gabriel. The second is Thierry Breton.

Mariya Gabriel is a Bulgarian politician, and belongs to the GERB party. The latter group considers itself conservative, and is populist. Nevertheless, it’s pro-EU unlike other European populists. Since 2007, it has come first on all EU Parliament Elections. Also, it has won most Bulgarian Parliamentary elections. Boyko Borisov chairs it, and GERB’s headquarters are in Sofia.

For her age, Gabriel has an important EU experience. She was part of the EU’s Parliament during 2009-2017. During her tenure, she was Vice-President of the EPP group. She also headed the Bulgarian delegation to the European cluster. As an MP, she made part of several committees. The LIBE (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) is an example. There, she overlooked key migration policies. An example regards visa liberalizations, concerning Colombia and Peru.

Gabriel was part of other committees, too. For example, she integrated AFET (Foreign Affairs) or FEMM (Women’s Rights and Gender Equality). She also belonged to the AGRI committee (Agriculture and Rural Development). As part of the latter, she took important initiatives. She fought for a more flexible agricultural policy, for 2014-2020. Between 2014 and 2017, she also campaigned for apiculture and bee health.

An important initiative of Gabriel was the Danube strategy. The program was focused on the macro-region. It intended to coordinate policies, under the Europe 2020 strategy.  Its goal was smart, inclusive and sustainable growth focused on twelve priority areas. Its extent was interestingly large: nine EU members, and 5 non-members. Also, it used a “bottom-up” approach. The project was quite open to citizen/community participation.

In 2017, Bulgarian PM Borisov nominated Gabriela commissioner. She substituted Kristalina Georgieva, who was serving since 2014. In 2019, von der Leyen gave her the supervision of Innovation and Youth. Her role, in the new commission, shouldn’t be underestimated. She will impact key initiatives, over the coming tenure. For example, implementation of Horizon Europe will rest on her. Also, she’ll contribute towards a European Research Area.

The second commissioner affecting WI is Thierry Breton. He has the chore of overlooking the EU’s internal market. His roles regard SME strategies, and industrial policies. He will be challenged with promoting growth, while reducing environmental impact.

Breton’s academic past fits our age. He studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, at the École Supérireure d’Electricté. Later, he would also attend classes at the French Hautes Études de Defense Nationale. The two would match what would be his passions in life. These would be business in telecommunications, and security.

Thierry assumed his first important position in 1986. Then, he became an advisor of French minister Monory. During this period he performed important tasks, like helping design the Futuroscope. After this, he would start a successful career in business. Such would include short public tenures, from time to time.

One of Thierry’s major business positions was in France Télécom. In 2002, he was named its Chairman. The company when he arrived, was in shatters. Over the last years, its share price had fallen more than 60%. Also, it had a gigantic debt of 60 million €. Unexpectedly, the French managed to make Télécom completely invert its course. He cut costs, refinanced debt and increased capital. Years later, Télécom would be in business podiums again.

 After his brilliant stay in Télécom, Thierry was designated Minister of Finance. He would stay there between 2005 and 2007. At Bercy, Breton campaigned for economic liberalization. His major goal would be to reduce public debt. To do so, a commission was created, together with Michel Pébéreau. Also, he promoted innovation and incentivized entrepreneurship. For example, he facilitated SME’s access to financial markets.

After his executive years, Thierry became chairman of Atos. The company is a French leader, in IT services. With his chairmanship, the company evolved tremendously. Breton allowed such through several steps. First, he ordered an acquisition of Siemens IT. This made Atos a major player, regarding European technology. The acquisition was one of the biggest Franco-German deals. Second, he bought Bull, an important French IT actor. This allowed Atos to become a global decision-maker, in Cybersecurity.

Breton has been a Board Member of several organizations. Corporate examples include Bank of America, Carrefour and Schneider Electric. Also, he has an extensive career in international forums. For example, he has advised the Asian Development Bank, or the IMF. He has also left his mark in academia. He taught at Harvard Business School, and was chairman of the University of Technology of Troyes.

Besides the above, Breton has a European face. Of course, he’s background is not an EU affairs one. Of the commission, he’s maybe the least experienced in community matters. Still, he has been sometimes related to institutional topics. For example, he was the one which proposed the creation of the European Defence Fund.

In October 2019, Emmanuel Macron proposed his commission nomination. Thierry was given the area of the EU’s internal market. His functions will, nevertheless, include other important topics. An example is the “digital economy and society”. Also, Breton will have an important say in Defence Industry and Space.

To prevent conflict of interests, Breton ceded his Actos actions. These amounted to about 30 million €. Of course, the issue was still mentioned in hearings. For example, Anticor complained, mentioning favouritism and illegal interests.

During his tenure, Breton will face important challenges. He’ll have to stimulate growth, while minimizing environmental impact. Also, he’ll need to address the economic impacts of the Coronavirus. Finally, he’ll face Chinese and US technological competition.


  Future Policies: what to expect?


Above, we’ve summarized the commissioners’ background. With this in mind, it’s now possible to forecast. What can we expect, from Gabriel and Breton, regarding Workplace Innovation? The answer isn’t completely clear. It has only been three months since their offices’ beginning. Thus, Brussels hasn’t seen yet how they’ll “shape” their roles. Before doing so, it’s important to review major WI initiatives in place. Doing so, helps us imagine how the future will be.

Over the last years, important WI projects have been created. So far, 4 have been making headlines. The first is the European Workplace Innovation Network. This regards a community of people, sharing ideas. It was launched in 2013, at the EU parliament. So far, it has contributed to important knowledge-sharing, regarding workplace innovation.

The second is INNova South, which is region-focused. In the south, WI isn’t very present. This initiative aims to address precisely that issue. It was designed to support southern SMEs, in a creative way. For example, it created an online manual of good practices. This allowed problems to be addressed in a cheap, and efficient way.

The third is RailActivation, centred on the transports sector. Its aim was to unite two important sectors: rails and digitalization. The link was to be strengthened through innovation and creativity. Interestingly, the project is a one-of-a-kind initiative. It has no “twin” in the rail industry.

The fourth is Start at Best. This project’s premise is quite interesting, when analysed. It aims to promote innovation by sharing start-up practices. Such companies are usually more flexible, and informal. Thus, they are a place for workplace innovation by excellence. Start at Best has a budget of 225 000 €, aiming to help 30 companies. It provides funding through open calls.

Above, the most important WI initiatives were shown. Regarding them, an important point must be mentioned. All of them depend on the critical Horizon 2020. As it’s known, this program will end in 2020. Thus, what will happen next? It’s likely that the initiative’s subsidiaries will end. Such projects are, sometimes, difficult to sustain without funding. Thus, Workplace Innovation might suffer. Not from the commission per se, but from H2020’s end.

Horizon Europe will continue H2020’s mission. It serves as the program’s successor, for the period 2021-2028. H2020 proved itself spectacularly beneficial for European growth. It’s hoped that a transition between the two will go smoothly. Here, a question needs to be asked. Will there be substitutes, for the above WI programs? In other words, will Horizon Europe “care” about Workplace Innovation? Here, it’s very difficult to give a precise answer. It’s possible that the subsidiaries might end. They’ve been running for some years, and have already produced the needed benefits.

“Focus shift” also presupposes less WI investment. The past commission had green priorities. Still, it wasn’t as centred in green development as the new one. Thus, H2020 might have enjoyed some liberty in fund placement. It could invest in diverse topics. For example, it could fund IT… but also workplace innovations. Such might change with HE. Most likely, the majority of innovation funds will got to green initiatives. All the rest will be competing for the euros left. Of course, WI is a somewhat marginal topic. Thus, it will probably be impacted by the phenomenon.

Can investment in WI be saved? Yes. But this will require more EU-funding independent structures. It’s not impossible to still access EU grants. To do so, it would be smart to unite WI and the environment. For example, offices built with recycled materials. Or workplaces with green spaces, and clean air. Such would allow WI to “sip” from green funding.

To survive without EU funds, projects will need deliverability. What does this mean? In the beginning, projects are highly dependent on funding. They, and their partners, are almost strangers. As they progress, results eventually start appearing. This makes partners trust the initiative, and chip in. Thus, the initiative becomes more independent from funding. Such will be important for WI programs that wish to persist. Their partners (regional, corporate) will need to provide for their continuation.

As noted, two commissioners could impact WI. The first was Mariya Gabriel, and the second was Thierry Breton. It’s not clear how Gabriel will shape WI. The Bulgarian lacks a distinct background in innovation. Throughout her career, she has only led one entrepreneurship program. This was the aforementioned Danube project. As noted, Gabriel was an advocate of Balkan/central European development. Interestingly, this might affect regional fund distribution. Most WI funds have gone to southern Europe. As reviewed, the area needed them badly. But central European offices aren’t innovation rich either. Thus, Gabriel might shift WI’s focus eastwards.

Regarding Gabriel’s role, an observation can be made. It seems to include too many areas. Will she be able to manage so many issues? It’s not clear. Obviously, she’ll be assisted by a numerous EU civil service. Still, the role seems too small for so many responsibilities. This, of course, will also play against WI. With so many topics, focus on each one of them will decrease. For a marginal topic, like WI, this will be remarkably negative.

What will be Breton’s impact in WI? Here, a forecast can’t be made. There is no track of the business mogul’s opinion on it. Of course, he’s known to promote radical changes in companies. Also, his ideas for management are usually innovative. Thus, we could infer that he’ll promote WI. Nevertheless, how it will be done remains a mystery.

It’s difficult to know how WI will be impacted. Most likely, it might lose some importance. The commission doesn’t seem to have a particular enthusiasm for it. Breton and Gabriel aren’t known advocates of the cause. Thus, it won’t be shielded from H2020’ end. This can sink it in EU priorities. How WI projects manage this will determine their future.





European Commission (2018). Horizon Europe – the next research and innovation framework programme. Retrieved from

European Commission (2019). A European Green Deal. Retrieved from

European Commission. Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs. Retrieved from

EU Commission (2019). Mariya Gabriel. Retrieved from

EU Commission (2019). Thierry Breton. Retrieved from avec Afp (2019, December 2). UE : Thierry Breton plaide pour une industrie européenne de défense. Retrieved from

The Danube Strategy. Retrieved from

von der Leyen, Ursula (2019, 1 Devember). Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2020, 19 March). Thierry Breton.

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