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EU leadership and an EU digital President

May 16, 2014 at 7:04 am | News


In case you hadn’t noticed – the EU is in election season. Candidates jostle and campaign for the key EU positions that could shape Europe for the coming years and decades. I am delighted that the lead candidates for Commission President have all set out “digital” as a priority. But what does it mean to be a “digital president”?

I’ve been fighting for a more digital Europe for a number of years. And we’ve made a lot of progress: from better broadband, to opening up public data, to e-Identification that delivers convenience and confidence across borders.

And our work is benefiting Europeans. From the millions of young app makers out there innovating and transforming sectors from transport to tourism, in a Startup Europe; to the millions of older people who benefit from innovations from the EU’s eHealth partnership.

Yet, for all we have achieved, the world is moving on even faster. More than ever it is clear how digital tools are underpinning and transforming everything. The world of 2014 is not the world of 2009; any incoming President will need to prepare themselves for 2020 and beyond.

Everywhere you look, digital is disrupting and transforming. As Amazon changed the bookshop, and Spotify and iTunes for music, Uber is doing for taxis, Airbnb for hotels, Netflix for TV, Skype and Whatsapp for communications – and more. In the future such transformations could spread to how we deliver education, energy, healthcare and more.

There is increasing recognition of this importance. But European leaders still have not made the leap from words to action: not nearly enough. In that sense, as Jean-Claude Juncker admits, most are still in the analogue age, talking about digital but not living it, understanding it, or supporting it with the right decisions.

A truly digital President would make it their priority to manage and embrace that change. Not just with words, nor with quips about using iPads and Twitter. As I’ve found over the last five years: words aren’t enough. This requires overcoming legacy systems, smashing barriers, and tackling vested interests.

Otherwise, we will just have one more politician complaining (for example) that online data is insecure — without the courage to actually make people work together to keep those systems resilient and safe, or without the rules that could actually make a European cloud work. We will have people singing the praises of broadband and digital, but unable to enable the massive investment still needed in broadband networks, ICT skills and digital research. This isn’t about rhetoric or trendy buzzwords; fine words will just founder on the rock of political reality. It’s about action.

We’re all aware of high roaming charges that can stop you using your phone or smartphone abroad. Those charges are a very visible example of the digital obstacles and barriers you face within Europe – and something the EU is tackling. But it’s just one example, and a symptom of a much bigger problem. Europe is a single market in many areas – but not in telecommunications. That’s crazy – in a communications age, where these networks underpin everything we do, we’re still stuck in a 1980s world of national networks constrained within tiny borders. Even if we succeed in ridding Europe of roaming charges – which I hope we soon will – people still pay more to text a friend who happens to live abroad; cross-border businesses still can’t get a single contract in multiple countries; hundreds of millions of Europeans don’t have fast broadband at all. Pretty soon, if every country keeps going its own way, we may have mobile devices that only work in the country you bought them in; taking the single market decades back.

Beyond networks: it’s about the whole innovative ecosystem supported by the internet. It is easy for any politician to talk about European innovative leadership. Yet today, for any young company, digital means innovative, and innovative means digital. The two are inseparable; supporting one means embracing the other: tomorrow’s EU needs to enable the environment where both can flourish.

Today, too many sectors do not realise they need to adapt. Nor do politicians. Just look at the EU’s copyright rules: a framework which often obstructs those who want to legally access music, stopping artists from getting the reward and recognition they deserve; preventing vital scientific research; inhibiting new innovative ideas from taking off.

Or another example. There’s a vibrant app economy in Europe. It’s not just about the millions (and growing) that it employs: but about the millions who can benefit from their innovations.

But it’s no good developing those innovations – in, say, transport or education – if we don’t have the smart cities or school systems ready to embrace them. Sometimes new innovations are banned outright – as we have seen recently in decisions from Brussels to Berlin and Barcelona. Other times we fail to accommodate innovation in other, more subtle ways. In education for example: it’s not just about giving every schools a computer and a broadband connection – although I’d love that – but about ensuring that teachers know how to embrace open education and use technological tools to deliver it in an entirely new way.

Being a digital president isn’t about using the latest new gadgets or typing what you might otherwise handwrite. That devalues the importance of digital.

Rather it’s about your attitude. It’s about embracing change, being willing to do things differently. Open to the opportunity new tools offer in every area of life: and willing to fight to ensure they are available to all. (And this amazing 94-year-old blogger proves there’s no age limit on that).

A digital president will have to deliver the single market in connectivity and digital services. Ensure an internet friendly copyright regime. Harmonise the rules for cloud computing and data. Secure our information networks and systems. Support innovative startups to develop and grow. And boost skills to fill digital jobs. Outside the immediately digital sphere, a single market in energy, flexible labour laws, and better access to capital should all work towards the same goal: getting the European economy back on track, and our people back into jobs.

This is not just about one single sector of the economy, not about specialised support; it is about an entire economy going digital. It’s not just about fancy gadgets – but about the change they can bring to everything we do, and the improvement they can make to the lives of every European.

Whatever a future President might want to achieve –openness, innovation, competitiveness, ending the worst employment crisis in generations, or all of those things – digital tools are the path to deliver it, and a digital presidency the only way to guarantee it.

This is not about politicians trying to second guess innovation. Out there are many thousands of enthusiasts and volunteers waiting to put new opportunities into practice – like the many out there wanting to teach and learn the new life skill of coding. As Winston Churchill nearly said: give every citizen and innovator the digital tools and they can finish the job. So I hope every presidential candidate will match their words with action.

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/kroes/en/content/eu-leadership-and-eu-digital-president



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