Don’t Letta Me Down: High-Profile Support for Freedom of Movement of Knowledge

Joint doorstep by European Council President Michel & Enrico Letta, Rapporteur for the Single Market Report – (c) European Union

In a landmark report for the European Council released this week, former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta places front and centre the idea of a 5th freedom of the European Union’s Single Market.

Traditionally, the single market, which celebrated its 30th birthday in 2023, is built on the freedoms of circulation of goods, services, people and capital. The idea was – and is – to make it possible for a truly European economy to emerge, taking advantage of its size to maintain competitiveness.

This is not just about economics. Greater competitiveness makes it easier to pay for social security systems and wider public services that support equity, and makes it easier to promote interactions and exchange between people.

Yet crucially, there is a missing element to these four freedoms – one that has been consistently at the heart of KR21’s advocacy since the beginning – knowledge itself.

Letta’s report agrees with this line, and indeed places it first among its six recommendations on how to realise the potential of the Single Market in the coming term of the European Parliament and Commission and beyond.

A fifth freedom for the Single Market’s fourth decade

Letta’s arguments are built on the recognition that key resources for future competitiveness and progress are the data, knowledge and skills that exist across the continent, not least in research organisations. He talks about “the collective intelligence of the twenty-first century” as the basis for work here.

To concretise this potential, and similarly to KR21, Letta calls for a multifaceted approach, bringing together legal and regulatory change with practical funding and infrastructure development. Ensuring that this happens, Letta recommends that Europe should “embed […] research and innovation drivers at the core of the Single Market,” and calls for “a comprehensive and ambitious action plan to flesh out and implement the fifth freedom.”

More detailed recommendations include supporting the development of centralised platforms to enable access to publicly funded research data, the harmonisation of cross-border data flow mechanisms, the development of data spaces and a comprehensive Open Science framework. There needs to be easier access to data, and attractive rules for AI development coupled with the application of research ethics to this.

In addition, he highlights the need to continue to support research outputs and infrastructures, researcher mobility and talent retention, to build digital literacy more broadly, to update indicators, and to simplify bureaucracy while also developing guidelines for responsible research and innovation.

Complementary to this, Letta underlines the need to complete the European Education Area, allowing for new pan-European qualifications and joint programmes, university alliances, and provision for cross-border learning.

Finally, to bring this all together, he highlights the importance of knowledge valorisation and that:

 “to accelerate innovation, tackle societal challenges, and bolster European competitiveness, the EU must actively encourage public-private partnerships in strategic areas focused on knowledge exchange and innovation uptake.”

Red Letta Day?

As highlighted in the introduction, KR21’s advocacy has been well aligned with Letta’s recommendations since the beginning. We have argued – and supported those who argue – that Europe’s failure to put a clear policy priority on research and education has supported a fragmentation of its ability to develop a 21st-century knowledge economy.

We see this in legislation which, while making some progress in supporting data flows across borders, fails to consider the needs of the researchers and research institutions who are at the origin of so many key innovations.1

We see it also in the arguably neglectful approach to supporting research and education in copyright laws, which leaves so much scope for governments to pick and mix that it imposes complexity, fragmentation and high compliance costs on those involved in research collaboration.

In doing so, governments face vigorous lobbying from groups whose interests in unreasonably restricting the circulation of knowledge in order to maximise profits seem fundamentally at odds with the goals of the single market.

We also see the need for actions along the lines that Letta proposes to support knowledge valorisation. This requires a modernisation of laws which govern the use of information where (almost alone in the world) European copyright law makes a distinction between commercial and non-commercial research which doesn’t exist in reality. This clearly hampers knowledge transfer and public-private partnerships.

We see the failure to support research and innovation in many areas – unlike the more cutting-edge technology oriented parts of the globe, we see it in the lack of a modern open flexible approach to how Europe structures the laws that regulate the use of data and information,2 in the failure to provide legal backstops to enable eBook lending3 and to ensure that publicly funded research is available to the public.4 We should in the interests of data-driven innovation also establish rights of access to data and licensed content on fair terms.

These are all challenges that could and should be resolved by the combination of political impulsion, legislative action, and purposeful investment that Letta proposes. We strongly encourage Europe’s leaders to listen to his proposals and make them central to the agenda of the next Commission and Parliament.

Keen to know more? Check out our proposals on concrete steps to implement the Letta Report’s recommendations on the Fifth Freedom.

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  2. Copyright and Open Norms in Seven Jurisdictions: Benefits, Challenges & Policy Recommendations ↩︎
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18 April 2024