It is hard to believe on a first reading of the European Commission's 3 March proposal for 'Europe 2020' — the new ten-year economic strategy for the European Union (EU) — that it is important for scientists. In bland-yet-grandiose prose that invites the eye to slide right off the page, it defines a strategy for Europe to survive the current financial crisis and “emerge stronger”. It pompously pledges to reform research and development and innovation systems “to foster excellence and smart specialisation”.

Politics is a dicey business and EU research is highly political.

But this draft is indeed important for scientists. It endorses research as the basis of an economically and socially strong Europe. It maintains the EU's goal of raising research expenditure to 3% of its gross domestic product. It recommits EU member states to the concept of the European Research Area, which seeks to remove legal hindrances to the free movement of researchers across the region. It endorses the concept of a single, European-wide patent system, which is badly needed as an alternative to the current costly system that requires patents to be registered in individual countries. And it explicitly reiterates the EU commitment to achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, while promoting the development of clean and efficient energy sources.

These targets are worthy indeed. But then, they were worthy when they were outlined in the Lisbon Strategy, the ten-year economic plan that was adopted by the EU in 2000. Today that strategy is widely regarded as a failure, largely because the EU member states seemed content to bask in the warmth of their good ideas rather than implementing them.

The European Council, which comprises the 27 EU member states, will meet on 25–26 March to start turning the draft proposal into detailed policy. Only at this point will it become clear exactly to what extent the council members — whose loyalty to the interests of their own country can sometimes conflict with their allegiances to the EU — will allow themselves to be pinned down.

The commission will then have to write a second draft proposal that reflects those details. This final document must be approved by the European Council in June. The consequences will then begin to unfold for researchers on the ground — for example, through the design of the Eighth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, a multibillion-euro grant scheme that is due to launch in 2014.

Politics is a dicey business and EU research is highly political. There are still many ways in which things could go wrong for research as a consequence of Europe 2020 strategy. But this time, at least, this draft makes it possible to imagine that things could go right.