Sustainability after Covid-19: Interview with Professor Rudy Aernoudt

By Richard Bousfield
Rudy Aernoudt, Chief Economist for the European Commission

On June 25th, Greenbuzz Berlin, Bern, Geneva and Zurich join forces to discuss the topic of Sustainability after Covid-19. We caught up with Professor Rudy AernoudtChief Economist for the European Commission, to discuss some of the important topics ahead of the event.

When and why did you start working for the European Commission?

Why is easy: I’m a convinced European. Member States need to have their say in the world, and progress can be better achieved working together rather than separately. I’m a big fan of the subsidiarity principle. By the way, it is the same principle that is the basis for the Swiss Confederation. Working for Europe, one can really make a difference. I always choose jobs where I feel that what I do has an impact. If you can move the European paquebot even just a little bit, you make a hell of a difference to the quality of life of all citizens.

When: That’s a difficult question. I worked in the Commission in the nineties for enterprise policy and more particularly on the topic of financing. I introduced the concept of Business Angels in Europe, a matching system designed to pair fledgling businesses with investors. Prior to this, a significant number of small businesses were falling into an investment gap early on in their development. Unable to source the investment that they needed to grow, many were simply leaving the continent. Business Angels now has 250 networks across Europe and continues to develop. Following this, I left the Commission for 10 years to act as Chief of Staff in Belgium (at Flemish/Walloon and Federal level) and in addition, I managed a big NGO- a spinoff of MIT, called One Laptop Per Child.

I went back to the Commission 10 years ago to deal with space financing, once again resuming as Chief of Staff in Europe and am now Senior Economist dealing with space, economy & amp, and enterprise policy. To give an example, a lot of companies do leave Europe at the scale-up phase as big tickets (15 to 25 million-euro tickets) are missing. Therefore, I launched a new program for financing scale-ups in Europe, called ESCALAR (European scale-up action for risk capital). Such an action shows that policy matters.

Over all these years, in your opinion, how has the EU changed and evolved?

Europe is big in times of crisis. It is during times of crisis that change becomes possible- where previously no agreement could be achieved, member states suddenly begin working together for the common good. Look at the banking union. Look at the Corona support programs. Look at SURE (Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency) whereby Europe promoted technical unemployment throughout Europe during the crisis. Look at the Green deal

Not everything is perfect, but Europe is a continual process. Sometimes things develop quickly, sometimes we lose time. But as Monnet, one of the founding fathers of Europe, stated; as long as a necessary solution hasn’t been tested, one doesn’t know if it is possible. Don’t forget that the European construction is unique in the world. A lot of similar projects have failed. Twenty years later, it’s still there and has survived the deepest financial crisis. The Euro is Europe alive, in the pocket of every citizen of the Eurozone and beyond.

As the EU’s Senior Economist, you are very involved in the EU Green Deal and the economic aspects for organizations and companies. Can you explain the potential advantages and disadvantages for CEO’s and entrepreneurs?

Far too often, economy and ecology are considered as enemies. The first thing we need is a mind- switch. Ecology should not be taxology and should not lead to over-regulation. Ecology is the economy of the future. There is no dichotomy here at all. We have to build our future economy on digital technology and ecology. This is what we call the objective of a sustainable economy and therefore we have to invest in environmentally-friendly technology, support industry to innovate, roll out cleaner, cheaper and healthier forms of private and public transport, decarbonize the energy sector, and ensure buildings become more energy efficient. And that’s what the Green Deal is about- It is a huge investment program.

The opportunities are there for businesses and entrepreneurs who focus on making this mind-switch. At a fundamental level it requires a broadening of thought from simply surviving change, to using shifting environments as an opportunity to grow and flourish. This is the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit- whether something is an advantage or a disadvantage is a consequence of one’s perspective. To what extent ‘business-as-usual’ business behaviour can and will continue remains to be seen, but we remain hopeful that the Green Deal serves as the impetus for this fundamental shift. 

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been a real bumpy trail for the EU and its member states. What is your opinion on the situation and, going forward, how do you see the EU evolving within the next 5 years?

COVID-19 has and continues to be a profound disruptive force, killing thousands and affecting many millions more around the world. It has damaged the global economy in a way incomparable with the banking crisis and has revealed just how fragile our systems are. What’s more, it has revealed the limits of our economic models. It is time to rethink these models.

That being said, the pandemic could serve as a form of catharsis, encouraging us to ask new and important questions. Why should production be massively offshored? Don’t we need to give priority to resilience instead of efficiency? Do we need strategic autonomy, for instance, in the field of pharmaceuticals? Can we go on accumulating debts all over the world? Have we found the right equilibrium between economy, ecology and people? Besides being an economist, I’m a philosopher: the questions are more important than the answers. Europe is obliged to find decent answers and The Green Deal is a response to these questions. But even countries like Switzerland will not be exempt from this process.

But finally, one should not forget that the generation that is in command now are the ERASMUS-kids. This gives us great hope. They travelled, they studied in other universities, they married other nationalities. This is Europe alive. It is the best antidote for dogmatism and populism. “Who never travels, is always right”, says the philosopher in me. For my students, language is first of all a communication tool, not a dogmatic symbol of culture. This open mindset makes me believe that Europe has a great future.

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