May 16, 2013 12:03 am

China in innovation challenge to Europe

Europe’s business leaders fear its industry will fall behind China in technological innovation within a decade as the economic crisis undermines one of the continent’s competitive advantages.

More than two-thirds of business leaders surveyed by Accenture, the consultancy, on behalf of BusinessEurope, the business lobby group, said China would reach or pull ahead of Europe in innovation by 2023.

Weak demand caused by Europe’s economic crisis has sent industrial production into decline, while corporate reluctance to delve into cash reserves is holding back new investment, training and R&D.

Rising unemployment threatens labour flexibility and Europe’s ability to maintain a highly skilled workforce. Fewer than half of those surveyed said Europe’s workforce remained a competitive advantage for industry.

European policy makers are determined to reverse industry’s decline. The European Commission last year proposed by 2020 to raise industry’s share of EU gross domestic product from 15.6 per cent to 20 per cent.

“We cannot continue to let our industry relocate outside Europe,” said Antonio Tajani, vice-president of the European Commission.

European companies remain leaders in sectors ranging from automotive to aerospace, engineering to pharmaceuticals, and two-thirds of surveyed business leaders said European industry was still competitive internationally.

But some Chinese companies such as Huawei, the telecoms equipment maker, are drawing level in innovation capability and gaining share in Europe. Some 61 per cent of those surveyed said they feared Europe would struggle to recover from its economic crisis for at least three years.

Some 90 per cent of German business leaders said Europe’s industry was competitive compared with only half of business leaders in Spain.

The Accenture study identified two areas to support growth: rebuilding Europe’s skills base and reinvigorating industry’s access to finance, including better access to capital markets and venture capital funding for start-ups.

Although Europe is mired in recession, there remain opportunities in areas ranging from low-carbon technology and smart grid networks to biotechnology and advanced manufacturing.

“The China machine is definitely going to invest a lot of money in technology innovation over the next 10 years . . . [But] there’s a sense that if we get our act together Europe can remain successful in manufacturing,” said Mark Spelman, strategy chief at Accenture.

“Just because there is zero growth across Europe doesn’t mean there are not segments of good growth within that . . . So it’s about how you place bets in an intelligent way.

To address the innovation deficit, business leaders want to see more public funding for R&D, reduced tax for R&D and capital investment and improved financing conditions.

European executives raised a variety of other worries ranging from the cost of energy to labour costs.

A majority of respondents were pessimistic that European industry would be cost-competitive in energy compared with markets such as the US, Russia and China in three years’ time.

US industry is enjoying cheap energy courtesy of discoveries of shale gas that permit new investment in gas-intensive industry, such as petrochemicals.

In contrast, Europe remains dependent on more expensive Russian gas, and costly regulation and investments in renewable energy are adding to the burden.

Accenture commissioned a survey of 500 executives and public sector leaders in a variety of company sizes.

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