Convergence, the process by which poorer countries ‘catch-up’ to rich ones in terms of real incomes, is at the core of the promise of the European Union and the Eurozone. It was enshrined in the founding treaty of the EU and is at the center of policy-making today. However, after several decades of strong European growth, convergence across many core countries has come to a halt. Policymaking has focused on promoting greater integration between EU countries and in particular within the Eurozone to foster further convergence but the political gridlock has stopped these initiatives from moving forward.
Further economic and political integration is not necessary for, and may in fact be orthogonal to, greater convergence in the EU. EU countries have converged at roughly the same rate as non-EU countries since the 1950s, suggesting EU membership is not responsible for convergence. Further, there is no statistically significant difference in the rate of convergence between EA 12 or EA19 members before and after the introduction of the Euro. Finally, many current Eurozone members have converged in the last 10 years suggesting that the Euro structure does not impede convergence. Still, further integration may be desirable in the EU – not least to restore the union to its democratic ideals.
The only variable that is associated with greater convergence in European countries is value chain integration, particularly upstream integration. Upstream integration is domestic value added embodied in intermediate exports that are re-processed abroad. High upstream integration indicates strong participation in value chains and integration into regional production networks. The level of upstream integration varies tremendously within the EU, going from 10% of GDP in Spain to 28% of GDP in Estonia. Once we control for the level of upstream integration, the rate of converge in European countries goes from 1.25% to 4.5%.
High growth countries are deeply integrated in sub-regional supply chains within Europe. Europe is often thought of as a single supply chain but, in fact, there are several sub-regional supply chains within Europe. These sub-regional supply chains are based on strong bilateral ties between neighboring countries. Participation in one of these supply chains appears to matter more for growth than integration with any particular country (e.g. Germany) or to any specific region. Participation in these supply chains is independent of EU membership – it is due to historical ties and deliberate national policymaking.
The EU must put cross-country collaboration at the core Horizon Europe– its €100B mission driven innovation programme – to future-proof European supply chains and reintegrate lagging countries. Horizon Europe is the EU’s bet to become a global technology leader. Leading in technology involves not only innovation but also developing the supply chains of the future that allow innovation to be commercially successful. Horizon Europe will not succeed if innovation spending continues occur in national siloes as it did in the Horizon 2020 programme. The EU must pro-actively manage and integrate innovation efforts across the Union and ensure that commercialization occurs at the EU level. Only then can we hope to achieve both EU technological leadership and convergence within the EU.