“I am convinced that this crisis will teach us many lessons and I am sure that the day after will find us working together to kick-star again our economies and drive our recovery towards a more resilient, green and digital EU.” Philippe Mengal, Executive Director of BBI JU, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview, he tells us how the European bioeconomy is reacting to the crisis of coronavirus.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
The world is experiencing very tough days due to the coronavirus crisis. What are the repercussions for the European bioeconomy?
Hearing from our beneficiaries and BIC members, I can say that the situation seems to vary significantly depending on the bioeconomy sub-sector and the geographical location of the activity. If the portfolio activity is more food and beverage oriented, then chances are that the less impacted it is. But in one way or the other, directly or indirectly, all actors have been impacted and they work in a pragmatic way and with whatever means possible in order to get back to a kind of ‘’normal’’.
I have noticed a number of interesting trends: I have seen numerous donating initiatives of bio-ethanol, hand sanitizing gels and creams so much needed by the medical workers. I have also observed a number of question marks for what the future holds but also a strong belief that this crisis could become the opportunity to accelerate the transition towards a circular and sustainable bio-based industry in Europe. Towards this transition we should be dedicated, pragmatic and ambitious. We should not miss the opportunity to unlock the potential of a new economic model by obeying to the outdated calls of some that want to stay to the non-environmental friendly practices of the past. To put it more bluntly with an example: no matter the situation it is never a good idea to go back to single-use plastics!
Under the strong impact of the COVID-19 crisis someone may be tempted to restart the industry without paying attention to the environment. How can we put the bioeconomy at the center of Europe’s development model instead?
There is no doubt that this crisis has cause Europe tremendous human and economic losses. It has created an economic recession whose impacts, I am afraid, we will be feeling also in the years to come.
The freezing of economic activities and thus the subsequent loss of revenue one could think would lead to little consideration to environmental rules and standards. I am not personally convinced that companies will do that. I would expect them to rather continue the ‘’business as usual’’, meaning keeping the same standards as before but not going the ‘’extra mile’’ hence being more environmentally conscious.
The President of the European Commission was clear on what the plans are for the future. We may be getting a better grip on the coronavirus, but this does not mean that climate change has stopped. The plan to restart the economy will be done by investing in a smart way. Bioeconomy will be contributing to its realisation. I am beyond happy to see that Commission has for once more reaffirmed its dedication in making the EU Green Deal the motor for Europe’s recovery and I am convinced that this is the best and only way in order to transform our economies and societies to confront climate change.
How is BBI JU’s activity affected by the virus, apart from what I imagine is also an indication for you to work at home?
Like so many other organisations and EU bodies, BBI JU was obliged to take measures in order to guarantee the safety of its staff. We are very proud to say that as an independent body we acted faster than others and immediately allowed BBI JU employees the possibility to telework. For me as the Director of BBI JU, the health and wellbeing of the staff and subsequently of their families are not negotiable. We are therefore all safe and sound and already entering our eight week of teleworking.
Due to the fact that we had in place a well-designed business continuity plan that was executed correctly and most importantly promptly, I am proud to say that in less than a week, we were back to ‘’business as usual’’. Core meetings are held in the same frequency, our core operations are executed with the same detail and accuracy, we are as responsive in our communication as before and I dare to say to some extend we are faster than before offering to our beneficiaries the maximum of flexibility in order to facilitate them during this particular period of time.
A few days ago we held our 2020 Info Day and for the first time in the history of BBI JU this was in a virtual format with inspirational keynote speakers from the EU policy-making sphere, the European Commission and industry. I am pleased to say that even though its format had to change, we had 4,500 participants from 45 countries, a record number. We received more than 200 questions during the Q&A sessions and we managed to answer all of them either live or following the event. We also organised 2000 virtual one-to-one meetings via our partnering platform! Considering the circumstances under which our event was held, I consider it an incredible achievement that demonstrated the mobilisation of the sector. It also allowed all our key stakeholders to follow-up on the EU Green Deal momentum and help build a circular, sustainable and competitive bio-based sector in Europe.
But by no means I do not want to say that teleworking does not have its challenges: we miss the human contact with our colleagues. But we are striving to make the best of the current situation: I speak and see the staff virtually on a daily basis and we all make the effort to keep in touch as much as possible. I say it with a great pride, that due to the dedication and good will of the staff that is giving the best of themselves during these challenging times for Europe and the whole world we are operating at the highest level of professionalism while keeping a strong team spirit.
What are the next steps for your organization?
In BBI JU we are working tirelessly towards our next milestones of the year. Before the COVID-19 crisis our year was charged with numerous high-level events that unfortunately had to be canceled or postponed due to the circumstances. But this has not put a hold on the BBI JU 2020 Call that is now open. We are already reflecting with the team the possibility of how to best roll out this year’s evaluation should this be conducted remotely. No doubt, this will be a challenge, but I have faith in the team and I am sure we will also tackle this challenge.
Now, when it comes to the long-term future of BBI JU, there I could only say that us like so many others are waiting for the developments at the EU Institutions. No doubt this year will bring delays on legislative developments more so due to purely logistical reasons. However, what I can say is that we have faith to the ground-breaking, highly-impactful results that we have created and it is our strong conviction that BBI JU has already contributed substantially to the EU Green Deal and is in a position to further do so in the future.
In addition to a health emergency and a serious blow to the economy of the Old Continent, the coronavirus is highlighting the political difficulties of the European Union. BBI JU is a clear example of how European collaboration is a strength. What are your thoughts about it?
Cooperation is the essence of the European Union. The success of the European project is based on that. BBI JU is only one of the many examples that EU has to demonstrate on what cooperation among countries, citizens and ideas can achieve for research and innovation, not only for Europe but for the world. Sadly, our continent has been severely hit but this crisis. But on that I could only echo what the President of the European Commission said during her speech at the European Parliament on the 16thof April. In these moments we should ‘’put behind old divisions, disputes, recriminations and be ready for this new world. We need all power and strength to make our economies, societies & way of life more sustainable & resilient. We should always have the courage to stand for Europe, because it is the Union that will get us through’’.
I know that the bio-based sector can be a key contributor to the Europe’s recovery, and this was also reflected in the thoughts of the Commission President when she mentioned that the EU Green Deal will be the motor for Europe’s economic recovery. The contribution of public funding towards an institutinalised Public Private Partnership like BBI JU would be paramount to maximise the socio-economic impact and pave the way towards the Green Recovery.
I am convinced that this crisis will teach us many lessons and I am sure that the day after will find us working together to kick-star again our economies and drive our recovery towards a more resilient, green and digital EU.