Future-Proofing Europe: Insights from the 2024 ESPAS Report

Future-Proofing Europe: Insights from the 2024 ESPAS Report

Jakob Graabak & Felicity Reddel | June 2024

The Significance of ESPAS

The recent ESPAS Global Trends Report is a thorough examination of the biggest trends that will shape the future of Europe. These reports are eagerly awaited publications stemming from an inter-institutional, EU-sanctioned process and are only released once every five years, underscoring their depth and rigour. Previous ESPAS reports have been pivotal in anticipating key shifts in EU policy. The 2019 report highlighted climate challenges, ahead of the Von der Leyen Commission putting the EU Green Deal initiative at the heart of its agenda. The 2014 report anticipated the need for the EU to strengthen its international stance, a theme that resonated with the with the Juncker Commission’s focus on foreign policy.

With the EU elections just concluded, there is a lot of speculation about the direction of the next EU mandate. Considering that ESPAS reports have provided insights on the evolution of Europe’s policy landscape, ICFG has put together an overview of the key findings and trends highlighted in the 2024 edition.

Key Insights from the ESPAS Report

The report recognizes that Europe stands at a crossroads. It successfully captures the essence of the moment – the stark reality of choices that will define the continent’s future. It also showcases the central role of emerging technologies within that story, for instance when stating that:

“…the increasing and widespread permeation of generative AI could be the biggest disruptor since the EU was founded”

ESPAS 2024 recognizes that this disruption may bring unprecedented systemic risks that can stem from misuse as well as from AI itself, stating that:

“…technological advances may bring unquantified potential downsides. An extreme risk is of AI ‘taking over’ and provoking real life catastrophes. Innovative technologies could be misused by malign actors. Our ability to discern the truth could be further undermined, corroding trust in society and democratic processes”.

Additionally, ESPAS argues that the current pace of development makes this an unprecedented governance challenge:

“…the governance of technology is becoming a pressing challenge for lawmakers due to the accelerating pace of its development. There are limits to the capacity of existing policy tools to capture increasingly complex issues and it takes time for legislation to assess and adapt to new practices”.

The ESPAS report emphasises the dual potential of emerging technologies. It highlights the urgent need for agile governance to harness the benefits of these technologies while mitigating risks such as engineered pandemics and unintended AI behaviours. Furthermore, it stresses the importance of proactive policy measures to protect societal values, particularly as the rapid pace of technological disruption exacerbates challenges.

In all these aspects, the ESPAS report and ICFG’s recent report on ‘Five Emerging Technologies to Act On Now’ consistently converge, making a strong stance on the need for responsive governance and proactive measures in the face of technological advancement.

ESPAS proposes that anticipatory governance is needed to deal with these novel challenges. The report argues that proactive preparedness trumps a reactive policy response, stating that:

“The more we understand the challenges ahead, the better we can anticipate and prepare for the changes to come.”, and furthermore, using lessons from COVID-19 as an example, the report argues that “The cost of maintaining early warning systems and preparedness, including stocks of essential equipment and medicine, are trivial compared to the potential economic impact of a pandemic.”

This chimes with a core position of ICFG. Several of the leading policy issues of today, such as governance of general-purpose AI, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, and the COVID-19 pandemic, were heralded by warning signs that could have helped policymakers act in a more timely manner – if they had been noticed and, crucially, heeded by the relevant decision-makers in due time. Instead, many decision-makers were caught unaware and forced to react in real-time due to a lack of institutional mechanisms for monitoring and anticipatory governance.

Reflecting this need, ICFG’s first report underscores that “to limit these technologies’ harmful effects, they must be governed by democratic principles, responsibly and with public accountability” and emphasises the urgent necessity to “strengthen disease detection, transmission prevention, and rapid-response capabilities across the world,” showcasing the indispensable role of anticipatory governance in addressing and mitigating crises before they escalate.

Blind spots and unaddressed realities

Unfortunately, the ESPAS report underestimates the transformative impacts of AI and fails to mention some of the most critical issues for emerging neuro- and biotechnologies.

Advanced AI

First and foremost, the report risks underestimating the transformative impacts of AI, stating that “generative AI technologies (…) towards 2040 could be a peer in human collaboration.” This focus, however, underestimates the transformative impacts of AI for two reasons: 1) depending on how “peer capabilities” are defined, they might be reached well before 2040, and 2) generative AI is merely a subcategory of the larger general-purpose AI (GPAI) category, which is rapidly evolving.

To prepare comprehensively for the future, it is essential to address the widespread adoption of current capabilities and anticipate and plan for the capabilities that will emerge in the coming years. We are already seeing early signs of abilities like multimodal understanding, situational awareness, emotional intelligence, and persuasion, as well as long-term planning and autonomous decision-making. At the same time, we can expect these capabilities to improve and additional ones to become unlocked. Without a thorough and foresightful approach, we risk underestimating the transformative impacts and missing the chance to ensure a robust strategy for adapting to these emerging AI technologies.


While the report acknowledges the risks of pandemics from natural sources, it significantly overlooks the potential for pandemics caused by engineered pathogens, a critical gap given the advanced state of biotechnology. Over the last years, a mounting body of evidence – such as from leading MIT biologists, a US Congress bipartisan committee, and think tanks like the Council on Strategic Risks – has documented that biotechnology is an increasingly likely source of the next pandemic. One driver of this risk is that recent developments in biotechnology, including CRISPR and DIY genetic kits, have dramatically simplified the creation of synthetic biological agents, thus increasing the feasibility for even non-state actors to design, create, and deploy highly infectious and lethal biological agents.

Engineered pathogens could be strategically released at major global travel hubs, enhancing their potential for widespread impact. This omission is particularly concerning as experts highlight the urgency of developing robust global early warning and response systems to address this evolving threat (see the above-linked resources, as well as scientific articles on the risks from engineered pathogens and recommendations of institutions such as the ‘Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’ (e.g., here and here).


While the report touches on human enhancement through advances in neuroscience, it overlooks the significant and multifaceted advancements in neurotechnology. This field is emblematic of the convergence and acceleration in technology that the report aims to discuss. Neurotechnologies could enable profound new medical therapies for difficult-to-treat conditions and cognitive enhancements, foreshadowing a new era of human capability. By 2040, neurotechnology could become mainstream, seamlessly integrated into everyday devices like glasses and smartwatches to monitor and augment brain function and computer interface.

At the same time, these developments also introduce a spectrum of severe risks. Vulnerabilities in neurotech devices, whether implanted medical products or wearable consumer products, could lead to unauthorised access to brain data and even direct manipulation of brain functions. This covert manipulation could result in altered thoughts, behaviours, and emotions, with profound implications for privacy, security, and personal autonomy.

There is also the potential for military applications that enhance soldier capabilities and allow for direct control of weapons through neural interfaces, potentially leading to unprecedented forms of warfare. Additionally, there is the risk of neurotechnology being used for oppressive surveillance and thought control, where technologies like brain scanning could be misused for lie detection or to enforce conformity, posing severe threats to democratic freedoms. These concerns highlight the urgent need to evaluate our current governance framework for neurotechnology to ensure it is anticipatory and capable of dealing with the evolving challenges posed by this technology area.

2024 ESPAS report cover
Source: European Commission Joint Research Centre

The real challenges of fostering European innovation

Beyond these domain-specific issues, the ESPAS report fails to challenge some commonly held assumptions about technology and innovation.

Considering innovation and competitiveness, the report cites work by the McKinsey Global Institute [full disclosure: Jakob Graabak, ICFG’s Foresight Lead, was involved in writing this report], pointing to how Europe is falling behind geopolitical peers such as China and the US across a range of emerging technologies. Unfortunately, ESPAS has misdiagnosed why Europe is falling behind.

The report raises the concern that mitigating risks from emerging technologies could stifle innovation, stating, “In the coming decades, the EU will need to strike a balance between promoting the development of new technology and protecting society from possible risks.” While it is good to be aware of potential downsides from overregulation – indeed, EU regulations on GMO food have slowed down the adoption of safe and efficient products and limited the potential for innovation in the biological sciences in Europe (see for instance Bratlie, 2019 or Anderson, 2006) – one should not equate “more safety” with “less innovation”.

While targeted and clear governance is not necessarily required for innovation, it can, in fact, reduce regulatory risk and provide the market signals needed to spur more innovation (see for instance this systematic review or how Germany’s Renewable Energy Law from 2000 created the initial demand necessary to lower manufacturing costs of solar panels). This is one of the reasons why the aforementioned McKinsey report concluded:

“Despite an abundance of anecdotes about EU overregulation […] the Single Market has been an extremely successful driver of smarter regulation and competition, in particular product-market regulation. There, Europe scores higher on the OECD index than the United States and China.”

Instead, the critical reason for Europe’s lagging innovation performance is a lack of scale and ambition. The US took the lead in the race for digital supremacy already in 1962, when NASA was buying every single integrated circuit in the entire world, to acquire the computing power needed to send a man to the moon. The scale and ambition provided by the US Government created the ecosystems of innovation in the Bay Area that have since given birth to most of the technology titans of today – and it happened several years before the Merger Treaties that launched the Commission of the European Communities in the late sixties.

To ensure a strong, yet responsible role for Europe in the development of emerging technologies globally, the EU should not worry about reducing its regulatory activity. In fact, continent-wide harmonisation of effective rules and standards is an important part of the toolkit that could help European companies scale faster.

Toward a resilient future

In recent decades, Commission mandates have been shaped by crises of many shapes, sources, and timespans. One of the most important takeaways from this report is that Europe faces many more destabilising shocks in the coming decades.

With knowledge of these risks, Europe must take strides toward preparedness and resilience. Crucially, the next EU mandate must take a longer-term view. Crises can and should be modelled and prepared for. Policy should be future-proofed and built on long-standing democratic principles, including the rights of future generations. Technology innovation cannot be a race for market dominance, but rather an effort to benefit public interest.

To achieve this resilience, EU institutions and member states must heed warnings of large-scale risks and recommendations for mitigating them from evidence-based, reputable sources. This foresight must translate into clear, adaptable laws with enduring technical specifications and guidelines to ensure regulators uphold their intent. Policy and oversight bodies must be well-resourced and technically proficient. Finally, governments must collaborate with civil society and citizens to enhance coordination, monitoring, and decision-making, diversifying and strengthening governance.

The Commission has the opportunity to focus on robustness in order to withstand shocks and enhance capacities to leverage positive developments. In an era of rapid innovation and deep geopolitical uncertainty, adopting a proactive rather than reactive approach to governance is required to reach the EU’s long-term goals.

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